Delusions of Dominance
Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—and Shouldn’t Try
In early 1919, Germany risked becoming a failed state. Total war had morphed into a 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 now 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 the ethics of responsibility, has perhaps even greater relevance in our own era than in his.
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 rigor 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 savior 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.
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, the word for “science” 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 pulverized 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.”
Within two years, however, Weber the prophet was there, either having thrust himself into this very role or having had it thrust upon him. The occasion was an invitation from the liberal Free Students Association to address the question of politics as a vocation. Who better to answer these questions, the students concluded, then “the myth of Heidelberg”?
At first, the myth of Heidelberg was not interested. No one, Weber replied, “has less a vocation than I to speak of the vocation of a politician.” He eventually relented but remained ambivalent about his decision. He carried his doubts with him even as he strode into a charmless hall on an icy January evening to give his speech, “Politik als Beruf” (“Politics as a Vocation”). Staring hard at the thick and expectant crowd, he declared: “This lecture, which I am giving at your request, will necessarily disappoint you in a number of ways.” He had no intention, he warned, of taking up the pressing issues of the day. Instead, his approach would be strictly formal and analytic. Yet formal analysis and passionate intensity were no more incompatible for Weber than were serious scholarship and political engagement. Rather, these apparent contraries were deeply complementary.
Weber compared the rise of modern parties in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As politics in these countries had grown more bureaucratic and rational, he observed, politicians had come to live off of, rather than for, politics. What did this evolution mean, not just for the nature of a political vocation but for its very desirability? With occasional glances at his notes and frequent sweeping of his arms, Weber observed that no one was exempt from vanity—certainly not those laboring in the groves of academe. But while conceit is not an especially dangerous trait in a scholar, Weber noted, it is very much one for politicians, in whom the quest for power lies at their “very core.” The thirst for power is normal in a politician. A politician disinterested in power is as oxymoronic as a writer disinterested in words. What becomes abnormal, Weber noted, is when “the striving for power ceases to be objective and becomes purely personal intoxication.”
Hence the urgency of the question Weber posed to his audience: “What kind of a man must one be if he is to be allowed to put his hand on the tiller of history?” (An odd gendering, since his wife, Marianne, had already served as a delegate for the German Democrats in the federal state parliament in Baden.) For such individuals, there are two kinds of fatal flaws: subjectivity and irresponsibility. The demagogue, fired by the desire to command attention, combines both sins. Compelled to count upon effect, “he is constantly in danger of becoming an actor.” This kind of leader, preoccupied by the impression he makes, cannot take seriously “the responsibility for the outcome of his actions.” This lack of objectivity, in turn, “tempts him to strive for the glamorous semblance of power rather than actual power.” At the same time, his lack of responsibility “suggests that he enjoys power merely for the sake of power without a substantive purpose.”
Weber’s profile of such political actors is as apt for our own day as it was for his own. Even more pertinent, however, is his portrait of those who instead seek power for ethical ends. He spoke of two types: those inspired by the “ethics of ultimate ends” and those attached to the “ethics of responsibility.” By the former, Weber means those who do not ask about or anguish over the consequences of pursuing their convictions. The end trumps every other consideration. Ultimately, it justifies the sacrifice both of oneself and of others as long as “the flame of pure intentions is not quenched.”
A politician disinterested in power is as oxymoronic as a writer disinterested in words.
The ethics of responsibility, on the other hand, always insists there is another hand. Those who channel this ethic are aware of what Weber calls “the average deficiencies of people”—namely, we are flawed, fallible, and all too human. As a consequence, consequences must always be considered. The person who follows this ethic “does not feel in a position to burden others with the results of his own actions so far as he was able to foresee them; he will say that these results are ascribed to my action.” She must always be prepared to give a full account of all the known knowns, as well as the known unknowns, of a particular course of action. It is immensely moving, Weber declared, to observe someone who, aware of his responsibility for the consequences of his conduct, “really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility, and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’”
As Weber reminds us, the line between the ethics of ultimate ends and the ethics of responsibility is not as hard and fast as we might imagine. We can fully plumb the human costs of a particular action yet nevertheless cling to our convictions. By the same token, we can fully appreciate the importance of convictions but remain willing to sacrifice them should their consequences become intolerable. Moreover, Weber insists that there is no single or right way to choose between these two paths. For this reason, only those individuals who inhabit both types of ethics “have a true calling for politics.”
What Weber did not need to underline for his audience, reeling from defeat in war and in disarray at home, was his tragic understanding of political vocation. Those called to that vocation will always face daunting obstacles. For this reason, Weber insisted: “Only he has the 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.”
Stupidity and baseness, if only in the world of politics, are as rampant today as in Weber’s time. And without a doubt there are, and always will be, men and women craven or clueless enough to make themselves complicit with charismatic figures who ride the furies of racial and religious hatred. Weber counseled against despair even in the face of such furies. While he made a powerful case for humanity’s growing disenchantment with the natural world, his life and writings stand as a bulwark against allowing the political world to suffer the same fate.