Book review: “Politik als Beruf” by Max Weber

The other day I asked myself, when was the last time I read an entire book in German? It has been a really long while, and I felt my German has been getting a little rusty. For Christmas, I got myself two German books I have wanted to read for a long while now: Ich und Du by Martin Buber and Politik als Beruf by Max Weber. Both happen to be in the beautifully done Reclam series. Since I discovered them in my German classes as an undergraduate (first with Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist), I have wanted to try to read as many of them as I could. Both the works I picked above are more modern works written in the 20th century, an das such are tied up in the events of World War I and II.

I originally stumbled upon Max Weber in an collection of Latter-Day Saint essays A Firm Foundation: Church Organization and Administration reviewed here. In it, Richard Bushman analyzes the early foundations of the Church through Weber’s lens of political legitimacy. Politik als Beruf is where these ideas are developed. I enjoyed reading these passages in the original German! Weber outlines three sources of legitimacy: (1) der ewig Gestriger (“eternal yesterday”) or tradition, (2) die außeralltägliche persönliche Gnadengabe (“the extraordinary gift with people”) or charisma and (3) die “Legalität” or legalism. Bushman argued that Joseph Smith, while soundly rejecting traditional as a source of authority, relied on both the charismatic and the bureaucratic to establish authority in the Church. Joseph Smith was nothing if not charismatic, and drew on that source of authority to establish his role as prophet. But he also laid the foundation of formalism and counsels that make today’s very much bureaucratized Church. I highly recommend the essay by Bushman, as it is fascinating!

Max Weber also kept cropping up in much of my Latter Day Saint reading due to the work of Lowell Bennion. Like myself, Bennion served his mission in Germany. But he also received his doctorate from the University of Göttingen where he wrote his thesis on the works of Max Weber. There is a lovely little essay in The Best of Lowell L Bennion summarizing Weber’s major points and discussing how it impacted Bennion’s ideas about sociology. I review the whole book here.

I didn’t realize until reading Politik als Beruf at what at interesting crux in history Weber lived and wrote to. Born in 1864, he wrote mostly during World War I before he died in 1920. He saw the beginning of a new fledging democracy in Germany, the Weimar Republic. He had high hopes for it, but Politik is also a warning about what can go wrong in politics. I was surprised at, what to call it, cynicism? Realism? in some of his stark statements. For instance, near the beginning, he states:

Alle Parteikämpfe sind nicht nur Kämpfe um sachliche Ziele, sondern vor allem auch: um Ämterpatronage.
All struggles among parties are not only struggles for material aims, but also above all patronage.

Man kann vielmehr den modernen Staat soziologisch letzlich nur definieren aus einem spezifischen Mittel, das ihm eignet: der physischen Gewaltsamkeit.
Furthermore, one can only define the modern state sociologically by the specific means that is afforded to it and it alone: physical violence.

This stark honesty, perhaps, is Weber’s strength, as it allows him to dissect aspects of politics very clearly. But perhaps cynicism is too far, because Weber also expresses some ideals throughout the text as well. For instance, he outlines the three traits of a good politician: Leidenschaft or passion, Verantwortungsgefühl or a sense of responsibility and Augenmaß or a sense of proportion.

Some of my favorite passages couldn’t feel more timely, given our current political climate:

Um so mehr, als der Demagogue auf “Wirkung” zu rechnen gezwungen ist, –er ist eben deshalb stets in Gefahr, sowohl zum Schauspieler zu werden wie die Verantwortung für die Folgen seines Tuns leicht zu nehmen und nur nach dem “Eindruck” zu fragen, den er macht. Seine Unsachlichkeit legt ihm nahe, den glänzenden Schein der Macht statt der wirklichen Macht zu erstreben, seine Verantwortungslosigkeit aber: die Macht lediglich um ihrer selbst willen, ohne inhaltlichen Zweck, zu genießen.
As the demagogue is constrained more and more to gauge by effect, he is constant in danger to become an actor, to take the responsibility for the consequences of his actions lightly and only to ask about the impression that he makes. His negligence suggests that he has begun to strive after the appearance of power rather than true power. While is lack of responsibility suggests he has gradually come to enjoy power for itself with a purpose to drive it.

Um fur den Führer als Apparat brauchbar zu sein, muß sie blind gehorchen, Maschine im amerikanischen Sinn sein, nicht gestört durch Honoratioreneitelkeit und Prätensionen eigener Ansichten.
In order to be useful to the leader, politicians must blindly follow and become machines, in the American sense of the word– not disturbed by the conceit of honors and pretensions of holding their own personal opinions.

One of the most interesting discussions in the work is the tension between elected politicians and policy experts. Weber considers it a success modern government that more and more aspects are run by experts and not dilettantes. Complex systems require a measure of expertise. Many of his points are still valid today– how, for instance, cabinet members of the President aren’t experts (Pete Buttigieg was just selected to run the department of transportation, and his entire expertise is “I like to ride trains”), but their underlings are. I had run into a similar argument in the book by Tom Nichols The Death of Expertise where he breaks government into the Knowers and the Deciders. He believes both are important. One can’t work without the other. Weber would agree; he says that Fachbeamten sind schlechte Demagoguen (experts are bad demagogues). That, perhaps is a strength in some situations, but Weber also worries about the over-bureaucratization of politics. It drowns the spirit out of things. He mourns the fact that the doings of parliament in Germany are BORING compared to the high-spirited party fights in America and Britain. I assume there are similar differences in dynamic today? I haven’t watched too much politics in Germany, but Angela Merkel’s speeches are always kinda of, well, yawn-worthy?

A highly relevant work, and it will certainly give you a few ideas to play around with in context of current events.

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