Max Weber on Politics as a Vocation

Published October 29, 2019

Political election seasons are always interesting times. An array of candidates offer themselves to the voters, each one promising a bundle of policy programs targeting what government will do for those who elect them, as well as all those who did not vote for them. They are all about how much they want to “give back” and to do for us. They portray themselves as ethical eunuchs, living just for the betterment of the rest of us.

But is this really what the government and political power is all about in our day and age? An analysis and answer to this question was offered 100 years ago, by the famous German sociologist and historian, Max Weber (1864-1920) in a lecture on “Politics as a Vocation,” delivered to a group of students in Munich, Germany on January 28, 1919. It was published later that year.

Europe Unhinged After World War I

Those were trying times in the world, and especially in Europe. The end of the First World War was less than three months past, with the Armistice of November 11, 1918. A defeated Germany was still months away from the peace Treaty of Versailles, which was signed on June 28, 1919, and fully finding out the extent to which it would be burdened with the primary “guilt” for causing the war, resulting in Germany being stripped of 13 percent of its territory in Europe, losing its colonial empire in other parts of the world, and expected to pay reparations payments to the victors well into the 20th century.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was disintegrating in those immediate months following the end of the war, replaced by what came to be called the “successor states,” including an independent Hungary, a new Czechoslovakia, an enlarged Romania, a resurrected Poland, and a Serbian-led Yugoslavia, plus parts of the Tyrol transferred to Italy.  What remained was a much truncated and far smaller Austrian Republic that many thought was not survivable on its own.

In Russia, a civil car was being brutally fought between Lenin’s Bolsheviks and the anti-communist “White Armies” following the Russian Revolution of November 1917. These Marxian socialists were etermined to bring on a “world revolution” to destroy the “capitalist system.” Days after Weber’s lecture in Munich at the end of January 1919, there was established a short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic. In neighboring Hungary there would be another belief but violent Soviet Republic from March to August 1919.

The centuries-old monarchies of Russia, Germany, and Austria were swept away. Socialist revolutionaries, aggressive nationalists, and democrats of various political persuasions were vying with each other over many countries in Europe in the fight for political power and direction of the various peoples under their control.

Legitimized Force as the Unique Means of State Power

It seemed reasonable to Max Weber, then, to explain what the nature of political control was, the meaning of the “state,” and the motivations of those pursuing mastery over the machinery of government. In other words, what the basis of political authority and power, and its use for various designs and ends in society at large?

To begin with, Weber reasoned that the state cannot be defined in terms of the ends it pursues, which historically has greatly varied depending on who was in control of the political administration within a country, and the purposes those individuals might have had in mind. The distinguishing characteristic of the state is the unique means that it possesses and assigns to itself in the attempt to achieve any specific end. That unique means that defines a “state” is the use of physical force.

“A state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Note that ‘territory’ is one of the characteristics of the state . . . The state is considered the sole source of the ‘right’ to use violence. Hence, ‘politics’ for us means striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among the groups within a state.

“The state is a relation of men dominating men, a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e. considered to be legitimate) violence. If the state is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be.”

The Sources of Obedience to Political Force

So, on what basis do human beings accept the right of some to rule and potentially apply physical force to assure needed obedience to their political authority within a geographical area? Weber suggested three general reasons that people support or acquiesce and obey those in control of government. The first is tradition and history. The ruler claims that he descends from others from long ago, those who were bestowed with the right to rule through divine appointment or great deeds that established that first ruler and his selected descendants the right to govern over a people and a land.

The second is the charismatic, a “chosen one,” who through his personality and the power of his will is on a “mission,” often religious, sometimes ideological, to bring salvation or utopian justice to a sinful and immoral world. He draws people, at first, to himself not through the use of force, but by the appeal and persuasiveness of his message and the influence over others of his mere presence in the company of those who are drawn to him.

And the third, in our democratic age, there is the legitimizing of a right to rule and to be obeyed because those in positions of political power have been assigned to those roles through a demonstrated “will of the people” who have elected them to a governmental position for a stipulated period of time. For people to fail to obey the laws being enforced by those in government is to not obey themselves, since the government and its policies reflect the intentions of those very citizens, as a whole, through an electoral process that all have agreed to play by.

Politics as Avocation and Vocation

What motivates those who are drawn to politics? Here Weber points out that in democratic societies most citizens have an avocation for politics, by which he meant an occasional pastime of paying attention to and participating in the political process through the voting booth. But for most people, politics is not central to their lives. They have family, friends, professions and occupations that fill their lives with things considered more important and necessary or enjoyable. Politics is something that people are expected to be aware of and take an interest in due to the impact and affect that political decisions and decision-making can have on their own circumstances in various positive or negative ways.

But there are others in society for whom politics is a vocation, again, by which Weber means that it is a central, crucial part of their lives, and through which almost everything is given meaning, purpose and direction to their actions. But Weber points out that that a person may live “for” politics or may live “off” politics; invariably those who make politics so central to their lives are motivated by both. Weber said:

“There are two ways of making politics one’s vocation: Either one lives ‘for’ politics or one lives ‘off’ politics. By no means is this contrast an exclusive one. The rule, is rather, that man does both, at least in thought, and certainly also does both in practice. He who lives ‘for’ politics makes politics his life, in an internal sense. Either he enjoys the naked possession of the power he exerts, or he nourishes his inner balance and self-feeling by the consciousness that his life has meaning in the service of a ’cause.’ In this internal sense, every sincere person who lives for a cause also lives off the cause.”

The Charismatic Leader and His Followers

In his posthumous work, Economy and Society (1920), Max Weber developed the concept of the charismatic leader and his followers, and how they live before and following their rise to political power. It captures the essence of what it means for individuals to live for and off politics: while devotion to a “cause” may be the motivating force at first, living off politics soon becomes the guiding motivation for many who come to man the mechanisms of political administration in the state that are introduced, for instance, by the charismatic.

A charismatic leader is one who stands out from the ordinary mass of men because of an element in his personality viewed as containing exceptional powers and qualities. He is on a mission because he has been endowed with a particular intellectual spark that enables him to see what other men do not, to understand what the mass of his fellow men fail to comprehend.

But his authority, Weber explains, does not come from others acknowledging his powers, per se. His sense of authority and destiny comes from within, knowing that he has a truth that he is to reveal to others and then knowing that truth will result in men being set free; and when others see the rightness of what he knows, their following his leadership emerges as obvious and inevitable.

Certainly, in the context of those radical and revolutionary times in the immediate post-World War I period, Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) fit that description. While many who met or knew him pointed out his either non-descript or even unattractive physical appearance and presence, most emphasized at the same time Lenin’s single-mindedness of being on a “mission” for which he had absolute confidence and unswerving determination, and due to which others were drawn to him and accepted his leadership authority.

Surrounding Lenin, the charismatic, was an array of disciples and comrades who were called and chosen, and saw who themselves as serving the same mission: the advancement of the socialist revolution. As Weber says:

“The . . . group that is subject to charismatic authority is based on an emotional form of communal relationship . . . It is . . . chosen in terms of the charismatic qualities of its members. The prophet has his disciples . . . There is a ‘call’ at the instance of the leader on the basis of the charismatic qualification of those he summons . . .”

The “chosen” group renounces (at least in principle, if not always in practice) the material temptations of worldly circumstances, which the goal of their “mission” is meant to overthrow and destroy. And, this too, marked the often conspiring, secretive and sometimes Spartan lifestyle of Marxist revolutionaries. Max Weber explained:

“There is no such thing as salary or a benefice. Disciples or followers tend to live primarily in a communistic relationship with their leader . . . Pure charisma . . . disdains and repudiates economic exploitation of the gifts of grace as a source of income, though to be sure, this often remains more an ideal than a fact . . . On the other hand, ‘booty’. . . whether extracted by force or other means, is the other typical form of charismatic provision of needs.”

Having Power Leads to Living Off the State

But once the charismatic and his followers are in power, a transformation soon occurs in their behavior and relationship to the rest of the society. Now it becomes impossible to stand outside of the flow of the mundane affairs of daily life. Indeed, if they do not immerse themselves in those matters, their power over society would be threatened with disintegration.  Slowly, the burning fervor of ideological mission and revolutionary comradeship begins to die. Said Max Weber:

“Only the members of the small group of enthusiastic disciples and followers are prepared to devote their lives purely and idealistically to their calling. The great majority of disciples and followers will in the long run ‘make their living’ out of their ‘calling’ in a material sense as well . . . Hence, the routinization of charisma also takes the form of the appropriation of powers of control and of economic advantages by the followers and disciples and the regulation of the recruitment of these groups . . .

“Correspondingly, in a developed political body the vassals, the holders of benefices, or officials are differentiated from the ‘taxpayers.’ The former, instead of being ‘followers’ of the leader, become state officials or appointed party officials . . . With the process of routinization the charismatic group tends to develop into one of the forms of everyday authority, particularly . . . the bureaucratic.”

I would suggest that in Max Weber’s analysis we see the outline of the historical process by which a band of Marxist revolutionaries, convinced that they saw the dictates of history in a way that other mere mortals did not, took it upon themselves to be the midwives of that history through violent revolution.

But as the ambers of socialist victory cooled, such as in Russia after the revolution of 1917 and the bloody three-year civil war that followed, the revolutionaries had to turn to the mundane affairs of “building socialism.” Building socialism meant the transformation of society, and the transforming of society meant watching, overseeing, controlling and commanding everything.

Self-Interest and the New Socialist “Class Society”

Hence, was born in the Soviet Union what came to be called the Nomenklatura. Beginning in 1919, the Communist Party established the procedure of forming lists of government or bureaucratic positions requiring official appointment and the accompanying lists of people who might be eligible for promotion to these higher positions of authority. Thus, was born the new ruling class under socialism.

Ministries needed to be manned, Party positions needed to be filled, nationalized industries and collective farms needed managers assigned to supervise production and see to it that central planning targets were fulfilled, state distributions networks needed to be established, trade unions needed reliable Party directors, and mass media needed editors and reporters to tell the fabricated propaganda stories about socialism’s breakthrough victories in creating a new Soviet Man in his new glorious collectivist society.

Contrary to the socialist promises of making a new man out of the rubble of the old order, as one new stone after another was put into place and the socialist economy was constructed in Soviet Russia, into the cracks between the blocks sprouted once again the universals of human nature: The motives and psychology of self-interested behavior, the search for profitable avenues and opportunities to improve one’s own life and that of one’s family and friends, through the attempt to gain control over the forms of personal use of the “socialized” scarce resources and commodities within the networks and interconnections of the Soviet bureaucracy.

Since the state declared its ownership over all the means of production, it was not surprising that as the years and then the decades went by more and more people came to see membership in the Nomenklatura and its ancillary positions as the path to a more prosperous and pleasant life. In the end, the socialist state did not transform human nature; human nature found ways to use the socialist state for its own ends.

Living For and Off the Democratic State

This political process is no less the case in modern democratic society.  The candidate for high political office may, no doubt, have started out as someone certain and determined to pursue a political career because they considered themselves on a “mission” to help the poor, end racial injustice, create a materially more equal society, or make America great again. But except for those who are financially independent, Weber says in “Politics as a Vocation,” the pursuer and the holder of political office lives not only for politics but off politics as a source of income and social position.

It becomes easy to reason and rationalize that retaining elected political office and the financial security and perks that come with it, is only being desired by him as a means to “do good” and far better than if another, especially from a rival political party, were to hold that position instead of him. His own implicit self-interest is inseparable from the publicly declared “higher calling” that compels him to serve his fellow citizens in that demanding government role.

It becomes that person’s niche in the social system of division of labor. And if by misfortune he were to lose that office at the next election, his acceptance of a well-paying job with a politically well-connected law firm, or on the board of a corporation that, just by chance, receives a good portion of its revenue stream from one type of government contract or another, or that benefits from subsidies or regulations, well, he can still say and even justify in his own mind that he is still doing good through other, more indirect means. Such political power is, after all, a strong psychological pull:

“The career of politics creates a feeling of power. The knowledge of influencing men, or participating in power over them, and above all, the feeling of holding in one’s hands a nerve fiber of historically important events can elevate the professional politician above everyday routine even when he is placed in formally modest positions.”

Weber emphasized that high political office holders, like those who run for the presidency or the Senate or the House of Representatives, need a retinue of those who serve and are loyal to him by being psychologically and materially dependent upon his position and power of issuing perks. Explained Weber:

“All party struggles are struggles for the patronage of office, as well as struggles for objective goals . . . This tendency becomes stronger for all parties when the number of offices increase as a result of general bureaucratization [throughout the government] and when the demand for offices increases because they represent specifically secure livelihoods. For their followings, the parties become more and more a means to the end of being provided for in this manner. . .

“The party following, above all the party official and party entrepreneur, naturally expect personal compensation from the victory of their leader – that is offices and other advantages. They expect that the demagogic effect of the leader’s personality during the election fight of the party will increase votes and mandates, and thereby power, and, thereby, as far as possible, will extend opportunities to their followers to find the compensation for which they hope.”

In Weber’s view, the growth in government’s size and scope also explained the number of lawyers involved in politics:

“The significance of the lawyer in [Western] politics since the rise of parties is not accidental. The management of politics through parties simply means management through interest groups . . . The craft of the trained lawyer is to plead effectively the case of interested clients. In this, the lawyer is superior to any ‘official’ . . . Certainly he can advocate and win the cause supported by logically weak arguments and one which, in this sense, is a ‘weak’ cause. Yet he wins because technically he makes a ‘strong case’ for it.”

All of the corruption, favoritism, privileges, special benefits, protections and subsidies that have come with modern politics “are the children of democracy, of mass franchise, of the necessity to woo and organize” the mass of voters behind the political figure selling himself to the citizenry so to be successfully elected.

The Political Fanatic Wanting to Make Over Society

With a ring sounding very much like it is about our own times with radical “political correctness” and fanatical race- and gender-based “identity politics,” Weber also drew attention to the dangers from those determined to remake society by use of that legal coercion that resides in the very nature of government and the state:

“He who wants to establish absolute justice by force requires a following, a human ‘machine.’ He must hold out the necessary internal and external premium, heavenly or worldly reward to this ‘machine’ . . . Under the conditions of the modern class struggle, the internal premiums consist of the satisfying of hatred and the craving for revenge; above all, resentment and the need for pseudo-ethical self-righteousness: the opponents must be slandered and accused of heresy. The external rewards are adventure, victory, booty, power, and spoils.”

For the classical liberal, reading Max Weber’s essay on “Politics as a Vocation” more than a century after he delivered it to that group of students in Munich, reinforces all the reasons why it is so important to restrain and restrict the powers of government to the most narrow possible, while still enabling those in government to secure each individual’s right to their life, liberty and honestly acquired property.

Appreciating Weber’s definition of the State and his analysis of all those desiring to live for the state as a means of living off the state at the expense of others in society, should be taken as a guide book for thinking twice before one believes and supports any of those offering themselves for high political office in this coming election year in America.

[Originally Published at AIER]