Politics As A Vocation Essays
Max Weber was a German sociologist writing in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One of his essays is "Politics as a Vocation.” His thoughts apply not just to politicians seeking and holding a government position, but also to journalists and political activists.
In analyzing society, Weber used the concept of the "ideal type," a role that people play, aside from other roles. For example, “student” and “teacher” are ideal types. In economics, “worker,” “entrepreneur,” “landlord,” and “tenant” are ideal types. A teacher may also be a homeowner, a parent, a voter, and a tennis player, but these other roles are set aside in analyzing the role purely as a teacher.
Weber had interesting thoughts on economics as well. For example, he wrote about the “rentier,” the economic role or ideal type of receiving land rent. “He is a man who receives completely unearned income.” Weber stated that “the rentier is dispensable.” Landlords, purely as owners of lands rented out, do not contribute anything to the economy. “He may be the territorial lord of the past or the large landowner and aristocrat of the present who receives ground rent.”
“[The rentier] is a man who receives completely unearned income. [He] is dispensable. He may be the territorial lord of the past or the large landowner and aristocrat of the present who receives ground rent.”
Of course the person who is a landlord often has other roles, as he is usually also an owner of capital goods, i.e. the buildings and other improvements, and is also an entrepreneur who selects properties to own and tenants to fill the units, and for those roles he is rightfully compensated. Thus the concept of the ideal type is useful in analyzing a specific social and economic role.
Politics in many countries is dominated by lawyers. Entrepreneurs need to attend to their enterprises, a role not easily shifted to agents, and so, being indispensable, an entrepreneur will usually not want to leave his business in order to do politics. Likewise, the ideal type of “doctor” is not dispensable; the doctor will not enter politics unless he sacrifices his medical practice. However, says Weber, “it easier for the lawyer to be dispensable.” Therefore, “the lawyer has played an incomparably greater, and often a dominant, role as a professional politician.” Lawyers are also more skilled at understanding and crafting legislation, but they would not dominate unless they could rather easily suspend their legal business.
Weber recognized the domination of special interests in politics. Beneath any philosophical differences among political parties is the financial benefits to party members who obtain government jobs and the economic interests which obtain subsidies. "The management of politics through parties simply means management through interest groups." Voters facilitate the special interests and major parties, because the typical “voter looks for the name of the notable familiar to him. He distrusts the man who is unknown to him.”
Speaking and writing just after the end of World War I, after the Communist Revolution, Weber was not fooled by Soviet propaganda. Despite their claim to have established a workers’ state, Weber saw that the Soviets had kept the same old military and workshop practices. The “Soviets have had to accept again absolutely all the things that Bolshevism had been fighting as bourgeois class institutions.”
Regarding Germany, Weber said that its “parliaments have been impotent.” Having been defeated in World War I, and with the peace treaty that blamed Germany and demanded reparation payments, “the peace shall be discredited, not the war.” Indeed, the Nazis later rose to power on the resentment of the imposed peace treaty. Weber foresaw that in Germany, despite their revolution that overthrew the emperor, “Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness.”
As to government and politics, Weber cut to the essence. “The decisive means for politics is violence.” The state is a monopoly of what is considered the legitimate use of force. Thus, “he who lets himself in for politics, that is, for power and force as means, contracts with diabolical powers.”
Weber distinguished two views of morality: an ethic of ultimate ends, and an ethic of responsibility. These can be combined, but the politician should aim primarily for responsibility. Government officials commit harm if they only implement an ethic of ultimate ends, such as equalizing wealth. They best serve society with an ethic of responsibility, basing their actions on the likely consequences.
“Only he has a calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.”
Weber concludes his essay with the statement, “Only he has a calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.”
© Text Copyright Fred Foldvary, Ph.D. rights reserved.
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FRED E. FOLDVARY, Ph.D., is an economist and has been writing weekly editorials for Progress.org since 1997. Foldvary's commentaries are well respected for their currency, sound logic, wit, and consistent devotion to human freedom. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He has taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and currently teaches at San Jose State University.
Foldvary is the author of The Soul of Liberty, Public Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary's areas of research include public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics.
Foldvary is notably known for going on record in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1997 to predict the exact timing of the 2008 economic depression—eleven years before the event occurred. He was able to do so due to his extensive knowledge of the real-estate cycle.
Rather than reproduce Weber’s Politics as Vocation, I thought I’d gather some commentary on it from around the web and comment on that instead. The text itself can be found here:
Politics as Vocation in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, pp. 77-128, New York : Oxford University Press, 1946.
This is the Mills & Gerth version, thought to be a better translation that Talcott Parson’s version, which is thought to be very misleading. First a quote from the work to start:
The final result of political action often, no, even regularly, stands in completely inadequate and often even paradoxical relation to its original meaning. This is fundamental to all history, a point not to be proved in detail here. But because of this fact, the serving of a cause must not be absent if action is to have inner strength. Exactly what the cause, in the service of which the politician strives for power and uses power, looks like is a matter of faith. The politician may serve national, humanitarian, social, ethical, cultural, worldly, or religious ends. The politician may be sustained by a strong belief in ‘progress’—no matter in which sense—or he may coolly reject this kind of belief. He may claim to stand in the service of an ‘idea’ or, rejecting this in principle, he may want to serve external ends of everyday life. However, some kind of faith must always exist. Otherwise, it is absolutely true that the curse of the creature’s worthlessness overshadows even the externally strongest political successes.
One of the more interesting sites is ARC: Anthropological Research on the Contemporary “devoted to collaborative inquiry into contemporary forms of life, labor and language.” But it is important to contextualise Weber’s writing: it was originally a speech at Munich University in January 1919, during the German Revolution. For some writers Weber is putting the brakes on the revolutionary fervor of the students. The London Review (of each other’s) Books has this to say:
It was delivered on 28 January 1919 to a group of students in Munich, and Weber used it to warn them, among other things, against politicians who come flaunting their good intentions, but leave behind them a trail of blood. Munich was not short of examples of this type in early 1919. The most prominent was the journalist turned politician Kurt Eisner, who had stumbled into power at the beginning of November the previous year when he declared Bavaria a republic, two days before a similar proclamation was made in Berlin, and four days before the official end of the war. Eisner remained at the head of the state he had brought into being, despite the fact that the elections he called to the new Bavarian Parliament in January had seen his group of Independent Socialists receive just 2.5 per cent of the vote, and three of the 180 seats available. Brushing aside this result, and the unsurprising clamour for his resignation, Eisner clung to office, on the grounds that practical politics had to give way before the purity of his purpose. His mission as he saw it was to cleanse the political life of Germany, starting in Bavaria, by embracing the idea of German war-guilt. In Eisner’s world, everything that preceded November 1918 was immoral, sinful and corrupt; everything after could be beautiful, healthy and pure, if only German politicians would own up to the wickedness of what had gone before.
The essay does admit that “Weber does not mention Eisner by name in the published version of his lecture, which appeared in October 1919. He probably felt he didn’t need to.” Or maybe not, the LRB also admits that: “Nor does he refer to Friedrich Ebert, though it is possible to read parts of the text as an address to the new President, encouraging him to hold firm.” This is after mentioning that:
Friedrich Ebert, soon to be the first President of the Weimar Republic […] acquiesced in the suppression of the Bavarian revolution by the Freikorps, troops with mixed loyalties but united in their anti-Bolshevism and taste for vengeance. (He had earlier acquiesced in the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the leaders of the short-lived Bolshevik uprising in Berlin, deaths which elicited from Weber the memorably heartless response: ‘They called up the street, and the street has dispatched them.’) In Munich, Red Terror was followed by White Terror, which was worse. By May, it was all over. Many thousands of people were dead, and political life in Munich became what it was to remain for the remainder of the Weimar years, a running sore for the new Republic.
What did Weber know of the murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht? What did Weber mean by his remark? The newly imposed democracy was bitterly resented by the mainstays of the old social structure, the Monarchists and the Army who did not feel they deserved any blame and who worked behind the scenes to obscure their on-going political involvement. Weber clearly felt a democratic solution was viable—and it’s important to contextualise how radical this position was then. Clearly the revolutionaries were trying (in his view) to impose further chaos preventing any constitutional settlement. It is interesting to see it in the light of another quote from ‘Politics as Vocation’ used by the LRB where Weber suggests what happens after a war:
The victor will of course assert, with ignoble self-righteousness: ‘I won because I was in the right’ . . . When the horrors of war cause a man to suffer a psychological breakdown, instead of simply saying, ‘It was all just too much for me,’ he now feels the need to justify his war-weariness by substituting the feeling: ‘I couldn’t bear the experience because I was forced to fight for a morally bad cause.’ The same applies to those defeated in war. Instead of searching, like an old woman, for the ‘guilty party’ after the war (when it was in fact the structure of society that produced the war), anyone with a manly, unsentimental bearing would say to the enemy: ‘We lost the war – you won it. The matter is now settled. Now let us discuss what conclusions are to be drawn in the light of the substantive interests involved and – this is the main thing – in the light of the responsibility for the future which the victor in particular must bear.’ Anything else lacks dignity and will have dire consequences.
So the murdered can say “I was in the right” and the murdered can say “what’s the point in looking for the guilty party” it was the structure of society that does the killing. What is interesting about Weber is the change and modification of his political position. He could be described as a left-wing liberal and that in 1912, Weber tried to organise a left-wing political party to combine social-democrats and liberals. This lack of success can be attributed to many liberals fearing social-democratic revolutionary ideals (such as those of Luxemburg and Liebknecht). The same source notes that Weber viewed democracy as a form of charismatic leadership where the “demagogue imposes his will on the masses.” The phrase demagogue (according to Castoriadis) was made up by Plato to taint Pericles—a kind of ‘this guy’s doing well, everyone likes him but I can’t stand him’ and also designed to make us think that because he is in power this means he’s usurped it. The anti-nationalist stance of the Marxist parties just did not appeal to someone trying to define Parliament and Government in a re-constructed Germany. But Weber’s big fear is obvious: bureaucracy:
Weber was afraid of too much bureaucracy. In 1912 he heard that officials of the government were working together with officials of large corporate companies. Weber wanted to create a large left-wing political party combining social democrats and left-wing liberals to counter the bureaucratic threat. The social democrats were willing to talk with Weber, eager as they were to lose their isolation in the German society and politics. It was very hard to find liberals who were prepared to cooperate with Weber, so the plan failed.
The essay also touches on apologists claim that Weber’s distinction between “evaluative” politics and “value-neutral” science shields his sociology from the harsh realpolitik of his personal convictions, but yet picks out that Weber worked in the antipositivist, idealist and hermeneutic tradition and that the antipositivistic revolution in social sciences stressed the difference between the social sciences and natural sciences, especially due to human social actions (which Weber differentiated into traditional, affectional, value-rational and instrumental). ‘From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology‘ by Gerth and Mills is one of the best commentaries on Weber that recast his own politics in a different light from what seems conventional (Parsonian) wisdom. This quotes Weber’s statement on bureaucracy:
Weber thus identifies bureaucracy with rationality, and the process of rationalization with mechanism, depersonalization, and oppressive routine. Rationality, in this context, is seen as adverse to personal freedom. Accordingly, Weber is a nostalgic liberal, feeling himself on the defensive. He deplores the type of man that the mechanization and the routine of bureaucracy selects and forms. The narrowed professional, publicly certified and examined, and ready for tenure and career. His craving for security is balanced by his moderate ambitions and he is rewarded by the honor of official status. This type of man Weber deplored as a petty routine creature, lacking in heroism, human spontaneity, and inventiveness : ‘The Puritan willed to be the vocational man that we have to be.’
They argue that in a fundamental sense, “Weber the scholar always wrote from the point of view of the active politician” (p. 32). The work plots the development of Weber’s orientation: so what was it when he addressed the students in October 1918 (they were published in 1919)?
In 1918 Weber shifted from Monarchist to Republican loyalties. As Meinecke said, ‘We have turned from being Monarchists at heart to being Republicans by reason.’ He abstained from accepting any political position in the new regime. A whole series of academic positions were offered to him: Berlin, Gottingen, Bonn, and Munich. He accepted the Munich offer, going there in the summer of 1919 as Brentano’s successor. In Munich, he lived through the excitement of the Bavarian Dictatorship and its collapse. His last lectures were worked out at the request of his students and have been published as General Economic History. In midsummer, he fell ill, and, at a late stage of his disease, a doctor was able to diagnose his condition as deep-seated pneumonia. He died in June 1920.
The topics of the lectures were to a certain extent dictated by the students. German universities were closed to Weber while he was a social democrat (p. 19). Mills and Gerth also state that the last course of lectures in Munich at the time of the Revolution were presented under the title, ‘A Positive Critique of Historical Materialism.’ But they also observe a definite drift of emphasis in Weber’s intellectual biography towards Marx.
What Weber was writing was about the possibilities of vocational politics:
Before discussing ‘professional politicians’ in detail, let us clarify in all its aspects the state of affairs their existence presents. Politics, just as economic pursuits, may be a man’s avocation or his vocation. One may engage in politics, and hence seek to influence the distribution of power within and between political structures, as an ‘occasional’ politician. We are all ‘occasional’ politicians when we cast our ballot or consummate a similar expression of intention, such as applauding or protesting in a ‘political’ meeting, or delivering a ‘political’ speech, etc. The whole relation of many people to politics is restricted to this. Politics as an avocation is today practiced by all those party agents and heads of voluntary political associations who, as a rule, are politically active only in case of need and for whom politics is, neither materially nor ideally, ‘their life’ in the first place. The same holds for those members of state counsels and similar deliberative bodies that function only when summoned. It also holds for rather broad strata of our members of parliament who are politically active only during sessions. In the past, such strata were found especially among the estates. Proprietors of military implements in their own right, or proprietors of goods important for the administration, or proprietors of personal prerogatives may be called ‘estates.’ A large portion of them were far from giving their lives wholly, or merely preferentially, or more than occasionally, to the service of politics. Rather, they exploited their prerogatives in the interest of gaining rent or even profits; and they became active in the service of political associations only when the overlord of their status-equals especially demanded it. It was not different in the case of some of the auxiliary forces which the prince drew into the struggle for the creation of a political organization to be exclusively at his disposal. This was the nature of the Rate von Hans aus [councilors] and, still further back, of a considerable part of the councilors assembling in the ‘Curia’ and other deliberating bodies of the princes. But these merely occasional auxiliary forces engaging in politics on the side were naturally not sufficient for the prince. Of necessity, the prince sought to create a staff of helpers dedicated wholly and exclusively to serving him, hence making this their major vocation. The structure of the emerging dynastic political organization, and not only this but the whole articulation of the culture, depended to a considerable degree upon the question of where the prince recruited agents.
The idea of politicians not being in it for the money begs the question — what morality does money provide?