Politics as Vocation
The questions Weber asks are, “Why and under what circumstances will the people submit? And on which intrinsic internal legal justification, and what external means does domination rely?”
Weber’s “Politics as Vocation” is the capstone to this translation because it brings together Weber’s thoughts about power, bureaucracy, politics, charisma, and discipline. It was first delivered as a speech on January 28, 1919, when Weber spoke from notes (which are preserved in the Collected Works of Max Weber), and was then recorded by a stenographer sitting behind him as he spoke. The notes and the stenography were then organized into an essay over the next several months, which was then published in German.
Weber was invited to speak at the Munich University because the students wanted to know how to answer the “calling” to the “vocation” (Beruf) of politics. The students were excited with the revolutionary activity in Germany and wanted to hear from a “master,” and so they asked Weber to address them. Weber at first declined—he was too busy campaigning for the DDP and a seat in the Reichstag. So, as an alternative, the students proposed Kurt Eisner, the president of the newly proclaimed Bavarian Republic, who was also Weber’s political nemesis. To block the invitation to Eisner, Weber changed his mind and accepted.
The students were apparently expecting Weber to give a rousing campaign-type speech that would offer comment on the political issues of postwar Germany, and also feed their idealism. Weber instead offered them a philosophical speech, which meditated on the very nature of government, and the inherent tensions found in the “calling”
of politics. Weber’s conclusion for the students is a gloomy one, in which he points out that even one meant for politics will at times use evil means to achieve a greater good. This is not the speech that the students contracted for (see Dahrendorff 1992).
The result is that, more so than the other essays here, this “essay” is a speech. Weber is sarcastic and at times flippant in this speech/essay. He uses it to deliver barbs to contemporary political opponents, including Bavarian president Kurt Eisner, communists, and other “little dictators of the street.” (p. 178). The pacifist philosopher Friedrich Förster does a little better—but then Förster never crossed swords with Weber’s DDP party, as Eisner and the Spartacists like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht did. The deposed Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the victorious Allies (especially Woodrow Wilson) who were demanding an onerous peace of Germany and admissions of guilt do not fare as well either (see pp. 184–185). But for the purposes of “Politics as Vocation,” this is beside the point. In Weber’s mind, what all of these politicians share in common is a naïveté for what politics can offer in terms of reform and the conduct of human affairs.
While these contemporary staples of 1919 politics are littered throughout the essay (particularly toward the end), Weber’s main point is still that politics is an endeavor with inherent ethical tensions that sap the soul of whoever practices it. The soul is sapped because inherently politics is about the wielding of coercive power (Gewalt) that is at times violent. The effective politician must wield this violence with a “sense of proportion” as decisions are made about who will be taxed, fined, restricted, coerced, flattered, demagogued, and even executed. Maintaining this sense of proportion is of course extremely difficult for a “true human”—as power-bearers they are constantly dealing with appeals to their vanity, and the temptations of power—a precise condition that leads them to lose any “sense of proportion.”
The ethical conviction needed to do this, Weber writes, is difficult because the politician is always balancing the ethics of decisions rooted in moral convictions (Gesinnungsethik) with the consequences actions have on the immediate responsibilities being aware of the consequences of actions (Verantwortungsethik).
Much of the point of “Politics as Vocation” is made at the beginning and end of the essay. The first part of the essay defines the inherent relationship between government and violence. The end of the essay discusses the ethical tension this definitions presents. The middle is more of a philosophical/historical excursion through the vast terrain of Weber’s reading and thinking about the exercise of power throughout history.
The middle of the essay is thus a classic of comparative historical sociology. It is a comparison between how modern politics in Germany and Great Britain developed out of feudal relations, and why in each place they took a unique trajectory, resulting in similar—but different—styles of politics and bureaucracies in each country. Weber’s point in developing this is to show that, in both places, politics emerge from coalitions of people who seek power. It is easy to get lost in Weber’s details about the machinations of nineteenth-century party politicians. Making it even easier to lose one’s way in Weber’s prose is that he introduces a third comparison—the new country that is the United States, which Weber points out has a uniquely corrupt form of politics due to the abundance of resources, which means that the “bosses” do not need to be as responsive to the governed. Such corrupt and inefficient practices are, Weber points out, only possible in a country that is so much younger than Europe.
Reading “Politics as Vocation”
At times “Politics as Vocation” is written with the cadences of the spoken word. At times, its rhythms are those of a sermon, a political speech, and a university lecture. In each case, an intimacy with the audience is implicit. This is especially true in the first and last sections—though there are asides and mocking remarks sprinkled throughout.
The beginning of the essay is among the best known in modern social science. It is here that the definition of the state as a “monopoly on the legitimated use of physical force . . . ,” (p. 136) is found. Descriptions of traditional, bureaucratic, and charismatic dominion (Herrschaft) are found here too (p. 137–138). These are concepts underpinning the rest of the essay.
The middle sections of “Politics as Vocation” is a meditation on the nature of nineteenth-century German, British, and American politics, with occasional examples from China, Russia, France, and elsewhere. The comparison is also dated for a twenty-first-century reader. The controversies Weber cites in each country no longer have the immediacy that might have been understood by Weber’s audience in 1919. What does have immediacy are his descriptions of the cliques that emerge out of different forms of politics—English gentlemen, American bosses, journalists (naughty press boys), vain Honoratioren
who emerge from the respected circles in each community. And then, of course, the imperious process-bound bureaucrats, and the vain dilettantes who permeate
the practice of politics are described here. It is in this middle section that the gems of Weber’s descriptions are buried.
The final sections of the essay are Weber’s philosophical conclusions about the nature of ethics in politics. It is here that Weber’s interest in religion is most sharply expressed, with frequent references to Christian and Hindu writings about the nature of ethics within the Stand of the politician. This is also where Weber comments directly on the conclusion of World War I and the then ongoing peace talks at Versailles—where idealists like Woodrow Wilson were demanding German confession of guilt as a prerequisite for a permanent peace. As Weber argues here, he finds this an ethical impossibility, without roots in basic reason. Grasping Weber’s distinction between Gesinnungsethik and Verantwortungsethik is critical to this. The concepts that first appear on p. 179 are at times difficult to understand. However, we hope that with the richness of Weber’s examples and the advantage of context, their meaning becomes clear.
By Max WeberThe Spirit of Work and VocationSecond Lecture: Politics as Vocation1919
Translated and edited by Dagmar Waters, Benjamin Elbers, and Tony Waters
Chico, California, and Hamburg, Germany
Dagmar Waters, Tony Waters, Bastian Brakensiek, Benjamin Elbers, Carolin Eberhardt, Miriam Franz, Anna Gburzynski, Lisa Jahn, Laura Kurda, Karina Mueller, Philipp Sakuth, Anja Seitz, Maximilian Vohleitner
Understanding of Politics
a. Sociological Definition of a “Political Organization”
b. Definition of the State
The Means of The Coercive Violence that is Gewalt
The Three Principles Justifying the Legitimacy of the Herrschaft
a. Traditional Authority
b. Charismatic Authority
c. Legal Authority
The Justification of Charisma for the Leader [Führer]
How Do the Ruling Powers Maintain Political the Dominant Herrschaft?
The Practice of Politics and the Career Politician
a. Stände and Politics
b. The Two Forms of Politics as a Vocation: Living “for” Politics, and “off” Politics
The Income of the Politician: Yesterday and Today
The Emergence of Civil Service Reforms
a. The Development of the Beamte Stände in Europe
b. The Chief Advisor
c. Political Beamte and Technocratic Beamte
Characteristics of Political Professionals, Their Leaders and Their Followers
a. The Main Type of Professional Politician
i. The Clerics
ii. Writers Trained in Humanistic Traditions
iii. The Court Nobility
iv. The English Gentry
v. The Jurists
b. Political Parties and the Pursuit of Interests (Advocacy and Propaganda)
The Types of Politicians, Parties, and Political Responsibility
a. The Demagogic Politician
b. The Political Journalist
c. Party Functionary
Leadership and Followership: The Origins of Political Parties
a. Guelphs and Bolsheviks
b. Parties in England and Elsewhere in Europe
Leadership and Followership: Modern Forms of Organized Parties
a. The Example of England
b. The Plebiscitary Dictator in English Politics
c. The Example of the United States
d. “The Boss” in US American Politics
e. German Conditions for Political Management
f. Current Events in Germany
The Forces Shaping Politics as Vocation: The Ethics of Responsibility (Verantwortungsethik) and Moral Convictions (Gesinnungsethik)
a. “Steering the Helm of History”
b. The Problem of Vanity in Politics
The Ethos and Morality of Politics
a. War Guilt, Ethics, and the End of the War
b. The Relationship between Ethics and Politics
Political Ethics and the Anticipation of Consequences
The Practitioner of Politics as Vocation
a. Politics and Salvation
b. Politics Are Not Made by the Head Alone
c. A Gloomy Prediction for the Future
The lecture which you have asked me to give will disappoint you in various ways, since in a lecture about politics as a profession; you will undoubtedly expect a position about current political issues. This however will only happen at the end of this lecture, and then only in a strictly techni...