Politics as Vocation

Weber, Max. 2004. “Politics as Vocation,” in The Vocation Lectures, edited by David Owen and Tracy B. Strong, translated by Rodney Livingstone. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

Lets face it, Max Weber was sort of a downer. On January 28, 1919, he walks into a Munich lecture hall. It was perhaps the height of Germany’s revolutionary moment. Many thought the country was on the brink of communism. Germany could not have been more politically charged. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht had been brutally assassinated just two weeks before. Revolution was in the air and, if Weber’s lecture any indication, spurting from everyone’s mouths. A throng of radical students eagerly awaited the words of one of Germany’s most prominent intellectuals. In the opening line, Weber warns the students that his lecture will probably “frustrate” them “in a number of ways” (32). He was surely right. The seething audience sat through a rather technical and abstract lecture, but one also that ends on much more positive, even poetic, note.

To begin with, Weber immediately circumscribes politics to something done exclusively in, with, and in relation to the state—or between states. The state-centrism of politics leads Weber to his famed definition of the state: “Nowadays, in contrast, we must say that the state is the form of human community that (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a particular territory—and this idea of ‘territory’ is an essential defining feature” (33). Unfortunately, he never really returns to “territory” in the lecture, but I do want to highlight the words “claim” and “legitimate,” so often drop out of repetitions of this definition. The state successfully upholds a claim as the sole user of legitimate force.

The definition is packed with ambiguity: how this claim is successfully upheld (coercion, expropriation of other force-users, consent building via democratic channels or otherwise? How is legitimate violence defined? Who decides what’s legitimate? On the next page Weber defines the legitimate use of force as that which is “perceived as legitimate.” Thanks dude.

This ambiguity is addressed as the lecture proceeds. The reason Weber situates politics so firmly within the state is linked to his definition of the state. Since the state is defined by its legitimate claim on violence, the state becomes the primary site for struggles over power. Power is essential to Weber’s view of politics, whether used to further particular interests or for the sake of power itself (33-34), but it remains something that people compete for entirely vis-à-vis the state.

So far the lecture cries out for some arguments about legitimacy and Weber, the crowd-pleaser, chimes in that there are three forms of rule: customary or traditional rule (“extending from the mists of time” and based on habit); personalized charismatic rule; and rule based on rationalized legality. These forms of legitimate rule rarely exist in a pure sense and probably co-exist, and he also points out that compliance with all these forms of rule is still based on “hope and fear” (34). His primary concern is charismatic rule, because it is with charismatic rule that the vocation/calling of politics bares deepest implications.

The modern state emerges, he says, through the expropriation of parallel, “private” agents along with their means of violence and administration (financial resources, subjects, etc) likening it to the capitalist expropriation of the means of production. The administrative staff becomes mere overseers separated from the actual material resources of administration. State officials and employees only manage the resources by the will of the (charismatic) executive. Echoing Marx, Weber deems this process “the expropriation of this expropriator of the resources of politics and hence of political power” (38). It is a political expropriation.

But this creates a situation, which Weber details methodically, of the state becoming a kind of bureaucratic piñata of bounty for the distribution of its largesse to politicians through patronage. Increasing bureaucratization somewhat dulls this tendency by creating a trained professional class, a group of technocrats who manage impartially. But this stratum of professionals evacuates power from politics, leaving it to the whims of party machines and political bosses or entrepreneurs (69) who perpetuate a spoils system—Weber cites Tammany Hall as the archetype of this corruption. These machines, too, depend on charismatic leaders.

And here Weber turns, then, to the three qualities that make an ideal politician: passion, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of proportion (76). Politicians need to have a sense of “cause,” a passion, but that cause needs to be linked to a sense of responsibility toward that cause as the “decisive guiding light of action” (77). But all this needs to measured by a sense of proportion, a cool-headedness, and “a distance from people and things” (77). “And yet if politics is to be an authentic human activity and not just a frivolous intellectual game, commitment to it must be born of passion and be nourished by it” (77).

The final points Weber explores is the ethics of politics. With the state in mind, he writes: “Can the ethical demands made on politics really be quite indifferent to the fact that politics operates with a highly specific means, namely, power, behind which violence lies concealed?” (80-81). Weber claims that the two bases of ethical action in politics boil down to an “ethics of conviction” or an “ethics of responsibility” (83). The one based on absolute, almost religious-faith kind of convictions by whatever means necessary, whatever the consequences; the latter is based on an acknowledgement of human frailty and failings, which require a measured consideration of possible consequences. Weber is making a quite explicit jab at socialist revolutionaries of his day.

But the two ethics can and should work in tandem: “In this sense an ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsibility are not absolute antitheses but are mutually complimentary, and only when taken together do they constitute the authentic human being who is capable of having a ‘vocation for politics’.” Put crudely, take a stand, even a principled one, but only do so with one eye on the potential consequences of that stand, do so while feeling and acknowledging the responsibility of the stand.

Bringing the lecture to a close, Weber turns poetic, even quoting a sonnet from Shakespeare, and beautifully defines politics: “Politics means a slow, powerful drilling through hard boards, with a mixture of passion and a sense of proportion. It is absolutely true, and an entire historical experience confirms it, that what is possible could never have been achieved unless people had tried again and again to achieve the impossible in this world” (93).

Warning the revolution will not turn out well, whomever the victory, Weber warns the audience of a coming “polar night of icy darkness and harshness” (93). Hopes will collapse and politics will fail, but the true person with a vocation/calling for politics is s/he who cries out, “Nevertheless! despite everything” (94).


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7 Responses to Politics as Vocation

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  4. Síona says:

    Thanks a million for a fantastic summary/commentary! Saved my ass before an exam, made me think.

  5. Anyichukwu says:

    Thanks so much. This summary has really helped me.

  6. artemisraluca says:

    I like your tone in this. You’re awesome for sharing all the other info surrounding his lecture. Thank you!

  7. JJ says:

    this was so helpful. thanks!

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