Weber: Political Writings


Weber’s classic definition of the state as an entity which has a monopoly over the use of legitimate coercive power in a given territory is found at the beginning of “Politics as Vocation.” Politics, he in turn defines as the pursuit of power over the state.

Weber definition is the following: “The state is seen as the sole grantor of the 'right' to physical force. Therefore, ‘politics’ in our case would mean the pursuit for a portion of power or for influencing the division of power whether it is between states, or between groups of people which the state encompasses.”.[1] Following this definition, Weber notes that there are three principles justifying the legitimacy of political domination of the state, and these include traditional authority, charismatic authority, and legal authority.[2]

Much of the middle part of “Politics as Vocation” is made of up Weber’s definitions of charisma and leaders, and the type of people who are called to the profession of politics.[3] This is developed by lengthy historical descriptions of how modern politics emerged historical examples. Emphasis is placed on Great Britain, The United States, and Germany,[4] though examples from France, China, Rome, Ancient Greece and elsewhere are mentioned. In developing these examples, Weber demonstrates his grasp of comparative historical research. To do this, Weber describes the relationship between politicians, political parties, and the bureaucracies they create. In this section, Weber’s writing in “Politics as Vocation” is similar to his writing in another of his well-known essays “Bureaucracy.”

In the final section,” [5] of “Politics as Vocation, Weber returns to the job description of the politician. His main point is that the politician needs to balance an “Ethic of Moral Conviction,” with an “Ethic of Responsibility.” The Ethic of Moral Conviction refers to the core unshakeable beliefs that a politician must hold. The Ethic of Responsibility refers to the day-to-day need to use the means of the state’s violence in a fashion which preserves the peace for the greater good. A politician, Weber writes, must make compromises between these two ethics.

To do this, Weber writes “Politics is made with the head, not with the other parts of body, nor the soul”.[6] The most effective politician is one who can excite the emotions of the people who follow, while governing strictly with a cold hard reason the head. But this is a task normal humans cannot do, because they are vain.

Weber writes, writes that vanity creates for politicians unique problems because they do indeed control the tools of legitimate violence.[7] Common vanity, Weber writes, means that politicians are tempted to make decisions made based in emotional attachments to followers and sycophants, and not the rational reasoning needed to govern justly and effectively. Weber finds this to be a common characteristic among politicians. As a result, Weber claims, that the danger of politics is rooted in the relationship of the politician to the means of violence which are intrinsic to the state, and which will be misused by any vain politician. This is why Weber emphasizes that the practice of politics so difficult, and not a task for someone who seeks salvation for their eternal soul through the practice of peace and brotherhood. In developing these points, he makes reference to the two kingdoms doctrine of Martin Luther, and the Holy Hindu Upanishads.

In the concluding sentences of the essay,[8] Weber comments on the German Revolution of 1919 which was underway when he wrote the essay. He gloomily predicts that the emotional excitement of the moment in 1919 will bring only “polar nights with an icy darkness and harshness, no matter what group will successfully seize power at present.” After saying this, Weber ends on a mildly optimistic note, when he writes “Only the person who is sure that he will not despair when the world, from his standpoint of view, is too simpleminded and wicked to accept what he has to offer, and only the person is able to say ‘In Spite of it All!’ has the calling for the profession of Politics!” [9]

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