No Comment — June 9, 2008, 9:52 am

The Calling of Politics

For Karl Jaspers, he was “the greatest German of our age.” Yet he died in 1920, at the age of 56, at the height of his prominence and of his political engagement. Most of his political energy was devoted to the crafting of a constitutional monarchy, a mildly more authoritarian version of the British model, for Germany. He antedated Germany’s slow collapse in the Weimar period and its disintegration into the mire of National Socialism. Yet he also sensed what was ahead, in the year before his death, with almost uncanny accuracy. Max Weber was a creature of his times; he spoke forcefully to his contemporaries, attempting to craft a way out of a superheated domestic political conflict. But he has remarkably much to say to us today.

I came this past week again to pick up and read the amazing speech he delivered to students in Munich in 1919 called Politik als Beruf. The title is a bit problematic to render, since the German word Beruf means “calling” in a literal sense, but its more colloquial and accepted meaning would be “profession.” And as the passage I have quoted and translated here makes clear, Weber has both meanings in mind. But just as important is his definition of politics, which he calls “striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state.” Just before offering this definition, he makes the oft-quoted observation that one of the essential characteristics of a state is its claim to a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force on its territory. It is essential that Weber uses the word “share,” and indeed it reflects his democratic predisposition. (His less democratically-oriented, and lamentably influential student Carl Schmitt instead takes politics as the basis for disaggregation, the principle leading to the dichotomy of friend and foe).

Politics as a Vocation is the sister piece to his other small masterpiece, Science as a Vocation, and the two works taken together render a more easily understood whole. It is clear that Weber himself is a man with one foot in each of these camps. Indeed, even as an academic he finds it impossible to hold to a single discipline. (In Science as a Vocation he claims as his “core area of inquiry” “sociology, history, political economy and political philosophy,” not to mention “certain types of cultural philosophy,” and this neglects the fact that he launched his academic career as a lawyer and legal historian whose work on the foundations of the modern business association is still considered authoritative).

But these twin works constitute a synthesis of detached, reasoned inquiry and impassioned concern about his country and where it is headed. There is no doubt that Weber is proud of his country and its achievements in the scientific arena; he considers its academy to have reached a pinnacle of sorts within the world of its day. And yet he is very critical of his contemporary academics. He is critical of the largely docile attitude they have taken towards the authority of the imperial regime. An “ivory tower” attitude ruled the roost. As a cartoon in the famous satirical magazine Simplicissimus showed, some spoke of Goethe and others of Bismarck. The world of politics was not barren, but it was addressed in highly abstract, often unrealistic and idealistic terms. This was the age of the “apolitical” German intelligentsia. Not coincidentally, as Weber was crafting his speech, only a short distance away, Thomas Mann was working on a book which could easily have served to make Weber’s point: Observations of an Apolitical Man (Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen). (The politician would “rob life of all gravitas, all dignity, of all that comprehends greatness and responsibility,” Mann wrote.) When Weimar fell, and the Nazis began their process of “leveling” the German academic world, they found little more than a whimper of opposition. Max Weber saw that coming.

But for Weber, the attitude that Mann articulated in Betrachtungen–an attitude which was seen as the natural consequence of the cultural conservatism of the day, and which Mann himself shortly was to repudiate—was a formula for political disaster. He saw his country about to be pulped between the arrogant indifference of the cultural conservatives and the Machiavellian plottings of the Bolsheviks, for whom any tactics could be justified by the objective of realizing the socialist state.

Weber’s own political engagement was profound and it clearly gave shape to many of the observations in Politics as a Vocation. He became deeply involved in the political life during the late Wilhelmine period; his instincts were nationalistic and conservative (from an Anglo-American perspective, though in the Germany of his day he would have been counted a liberal). Much of this can be summed up in his attitudes towards Bismarck, which were contradictory. He admired Bismarck as a man and as a politician, considering him a man who assembled almost unique political talents and skills. But for all of Bismarck’s clarity of vision and purpose in the pursuit of foreign policy and security objectives, Weber considered Bismarck to be little short of disastrous in the way he was crafting the internal political landscape of Germany. Instead of a vigorous and healthy democratic dialogue leading to the formation of political consensus, Germany had a powerful conservative establishment that placed all trust and confidence in the institutions and trappings of imperial power, starting with the military. Against this was juxtaposed a Socialist opposition, some of which could be reconciled with a few social reforms, but much of which was potentially violent and angry.

Through the war, Weber saw a steady worsening of the situation as a de facto military dictatorship was created over the country. In Weber’s view, the nation’s political-military establishment pursued foolish, chauvinist policies which inevitably would (and did) lead to a crushing military defeat. The nation’s proto-democratic institutions were destroyed by the war. In their place came a dictatorship which ruled by secrecy and attempted to place the blame for all its failings at the doorstep of its political rivals.

All of this led, as Weber notes, to “a polar night of icy darkness and hardness” which had fallen upon Germany, to a time of hitherto unknown bitterness, anger and confusion. Yet bad as this situation is, Weber uncannily predicts the making of something still worse. He sees that in the radicalization of the nation’s political landscape, in the stubborn refusal to seek out a “politics of the possible.”

Those who reject the political world as something beneath reproach, who refuse to “dirty their hands” with its business, draw Weber’s scorn. In particular, he is angry at the educators who adopt such attitudes. They have drained the playing field of its essential talent, Weber suggests. Moreover, his particular scorn attaches to the cultural conservatives who refuse to recognize that times have changed and that they now face the challenge of making the most for their country out of these changes. The cultural conservatives longed for restoration of the Wilhelmine world, rejected the institutions of the Weimar Republic that Weber helped to cast. Delegitimizing Weimar, they laid the foundations for the nightmare for Germany and Europe that succeeded it.

Weber gives us a portrait of the person who is “called” by politics. He cannot be a simple moralist who embraces without reservation the values of the Sermon on the Mount, for this is a calling “not of this world.” He cannot be a crude Machiavellian in the common sense who scorns any sense of ethics—though Weber sees such people all about him in the competing waves of “White” and “Red” terror, he senses their values will lead to a descent into violence and chaos. The age calls for a politician who has a sense of a mission which is informed by ideals, but also has a firm grip on the art of the possible, and an unshakable resolve to do his utmost to achieve it. And most significantly, Weber believes this figure must be capable of holding these ultimately irreconcilable thoughts in mind, drawing inspiration from them, being sustained by them, without collapsing under the weight of the many inherent contradictions that the political process presents.

Weber’s lecture may not be perfect in an analytical sense (and it is after all, merely a lecture), but its essence is powerful and compelling. He points to vision, ambition, perspective, leadership and moral judgment as indispensable elements to be held in balance.

This week the Democratic Party’s nominating process has come to an end, and with it, the election contest between Barack Obama and John McCain begins in earnest. It will be a long process and it is likely to be fraught with pettiness and venom, as most election campaigns are. We should start the process by recognizing that, for all their shortcomings, these are two of the most talented candidates to appear on the American political landscape in a long time. We should also recognize that America does not face the problem of radicalization that Weber saw in 1919. The American political process drives towards the creation of political consensus; this is a trait which has been essential to America’s rise on the world stage and which continues to sustain it. There are important differences between these candidates, and citizens may feel passionately that one or the other is the superior choice, but from a broader historical perspective the differences that divide these candidates are remarkably modest. Neither is an ideologue. Each has a moral lodestar. Nevertheless, America does face a choice with great consequence for itself and for the entire world. And America in a sense does not just govern itself. The policies its government adopts mean the difference between life and death for millions beyond its frontiers. The responsibility faced by America’s voters is therefore especially earnest.

Weber has something to tell us in this context as well. He appeals for a level-headed and earnest engagement. Few have a genuine calling to be politicians, he tells us. But for the greater number who stand on the sidelines and observe, and occasionally perhaps stretch a hand of participation into that arena, he gives a message of encouragement and caution. Avoid holding all those who contend as politicians in contempt, he says, but strive to hold them to account. Remember that they will shape the world in which you live and that each of you has the ability to affect somewhat whether it is more a bit of heaven or a bit of hell. That is, I think, precisely the attitude that America’s voters must take into this election contest.

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