Max Weber

Myths of the Prophet Max

Daniel Johnson on the life and work of Max Weber, whose controversial views on democracy still resonate today


A young freelance of my acquaintance, exceptionally gifted, tells me that she has abandoned journalism in favour of a teaching post at a university. “I don’t think I’d be able to make a living as a full-time freelance journalist any more in the current climate,” she says.

She is not alone. These are tough times for everyone, but the decline of journalism as a profession has now lasted for a generation or more; tough choices must be made. My young friend’s decision reminded me of George Bernard Shaw’s adage: “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”

It was dubious advice even in 1903, when it appeared in “Maxims of a Revolutionist”, the second part of Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy. These maxims are not necessarily Shaw’s own opinions. They are the fictional work of the eponymous revolutionist: John Tanner, “Member of the Idle Rich Club”. But the well-worn words about teaching are even more questionable now. When Shaw wrote, writers enjoyed great power, prestige and, in his own case, wealth. Journalism, the means by which many writers earned a living, was becoming a profession. Teachers and academics were despised by Shaw’s Tanner. Another maxim reads: “A learned man is an idler who kills time with study. Beware of his false knowledge: it is more dangerous than ignorance.”

How very different things seem more than a century later. Academic jobs are so sought after that brilliant young people spend decades in their pursuit. Online formats have democratised the acquisition of knowledge, as the public realised years ago, but universities are only just discovering. It took a global pandemic to persuade Manchester and Cambridge, for example, to move their lectures online, while many others still dither.

But the teaching professions are all thriving. The writers, not so much. The availability of teaching online has enhanced the status of teachers. The availability of written “content” online has undermined the status of writers. Teaching was once much less lucrative than writing; now, with the exception of a handful of literary celebrities or journalistic legends, teaching is generally better rewarded. A latter-day Revolutionist might adapt Shaw’s maxim to read: “Those who can, teach. Those who cannot, write.”

The corollary of this state of affairs is that many teachers are writers manqués. Now and then, however, an intellectual demiurge emerges from the groves of academia: a magus who not only teaches and writes, but inspires and transforms a whole generation; a genius who opens up entire realms of knowledge, delves into the depths of disciplines and rebuilds them from the foundations. Such a force of nature cannot be contained by the entire panoply of institutional life; their faculties function on an altogether grander scale than the academy’s.

For such an “uomo universale”, the university seems parochial. Nor do these titans recognise the temporal limits of a lifetime: long after their lives are over, their works live on, not merely generating debate, but acquiring new layers of meaning, as disciples defend and critics dissect, scholars edit and rivals revise, students read and reread, until the mentality of posterity is shaped by them.

For generations, Germany had been shaped by its culture of didacticism; in Shaw’s day, it was the land of the professor as hero. One such hero towered above his contemporaries: the father of modern social thought, Max Weber.

Exactly a century ago, Weber succumbed to an unknown respiratory disease. He was only 56, but his decline was swift. Some close to him blamed the doctor, who had claimed that he could handle not only influenza (then a new disease) but also pneumonia; his most recent biographer, Joachim Radkau, implies that antibiotics might have saved him.

Yet neither better doctors nor drugs could have resisted a viral onslaught that attacked not only his lungs but, as an autopsy revealed, his spleen, liver and stomach too. After living through the Covid-19 pandemic, we now realise that even modern medicine may be helpless against viruses of such virulence. Having struggled vainly for a fortnight, Weber died on 16 June, 1920.

Marianne Weber: Order from chaos

At Max Weber’s bedside were two women: his wife, Marianne, and his lover, Else Jaffé. We shall come to the latter, but we owe to Marianne the gargantuan editorial labour on which Weber’s posthumous reputation rests. Within two years she had assembled from the chaos of his notes and delivered to the world the colossal book she entitled Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Economy and Society). It is now seen as his magnum opus.

To this difficult, demanding but rewarding treatise, we owe the familiar Weberian “ideal types”; the categories of rational, traditional and charismatic domination; the all-encompassing “iron cage” of rationalisation and the ubiquitous bureaucracy of modern life; the sociology of law, politics and the city; and the enduring influence of religion, even in secular societies, including the “inner-worldly asceticism” that, particularly in the form of the famous “Protestant work ethic”, drives the development of capitalism.

I have a copy of the first edition of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. It is quite rare, having been published in 1922 as part of a vast collaborative project entitled Grundriss der Sozialökonomik (Outline of Social Economy). Marianne’s name appears nowhere in its 840 pages. Even the dedication is to the author’s mother, not his wife.

My copy belonged to a female scholar: Kate (Käthe) Liepmann, one of the many Jewish émigrés from the Nazis who escaped here in the 1930s. I have been able to discover only the basic facts of her life. Born in Breslau (now Wroclaw) in 1898, as the daughter of a distinguished psychiatrist and a philanthropist mother who belonged to the Bleichröder banking dynasty, she died in London in 1985, aged 87.

She, like Weber, became a teacher and a writer, the author of a study of apprenticeship and of the standard sociological text The Journey to Work. After her death, her library was sold; I bought the Weber volume in a Hampstead bookshop. Her marginalia, pencilled in old-fashioned, almost illegible “German script”, indicate that she was an assiduous reader of Weber. She would have been a student when this volume was published. Only a dedicated disciple of Weber would have bought a copy of what was not yet a celebrated treatise; doubtless that was why she brought it with her after 1933.

It is even possible that Käthe, then just over 20, actually attended Weber’s lectures in Munich. However that may be, the human connection she represents between this copy of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft and its author is, for me, symbolic, exciting and even moving. Books such as this are the physical embodiment not only of ideas, but of experience — in this case, the experience of persecution, exile and the transmission of civilisation.

As a postgraduate student at Peterhouse, Cambridge, in the early 1980s I encountered Edward Shils, perhaps the preeminent interpreter of Weber in the English-speaking world. His engagement with the Weberian world had begun in Chicago in 1936 and a festschrift, The Calling of Social Thought: Rediscovering the work of Edward Shils (Manchester University Press), appeared last year, a reminder of the richness of the Weberian legacy. Not only has it entered into common parlance — even Donald Trump likes to boast about his “work ethic” — but his influence extends right across the political spectrum. Shils was a conservative thinker, but other Weberians of my acquaintance, such as the Cambridge sociologist W.G. Runciman, have been liberals.

In this respect, Weber differs profoundly from his only comparable rival in social science, Karl Marx, whose followers have all been of the left. While Marxists have tended to dismiss Weber as a “bourgeois” thinker, by contrast Weberians, like Weber himself, have always taken Marx seriously. However, as writers Marx and Weber suffered quite similar fates: both had great difficulty finishing books and died with much of their work in manuscript form.

The historical-critical edition of Marx and Engels (known as MEGA) begun in Moscow in the 1920s was interrupted because Stalin had its editor David Riazanov liquidated; restarted in the 1960s in East Germany, it is still incomplete and expected to run to 114 volumes. The Max Weber Gesamtausgabe (MWG) was launched in 1975, funded by the German government; it has just been completed to coincide with his centenary.

What the editors have done, put simply, is to undo all the work of synthesis that Marianne Weber carried out after his death, deconstructing the MSS from different periods that she collated in the course of editing Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, in order to reconstruct his writing and her editorial process.

For textual scholars, such an edition is of great value; other readers, however, will probably prefer to stick to the original edition, even if its structure is really the work not of Weber himself but of his widow. I, at any rate, shall stick to that version, of which there is an excellent two-volume translation, edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich (Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, University of California Press).

We began by comparing teaching and writing. In Weber’s case, this dialectic was the visible expression of his tortured interior life. During the last two decades of his life, periods of productivity and didacticism were punctuated by intervals of deep depression, which Marianne called his “demons”. Though his symptoms were consistent with both schizoid and bipolar disorders — his friend Karl Jaspers, an authority on psychiatric as well as philosophical matters, diagnosed him as manic-depressive — Weber’s troubles were clearly at least in part sexual.

These problems are difficult to reconstruct from the documents, but at one stage Marianne even consulted a specialist about the possibility of castration. We do know that Weber was prey to impotence. This changed in his last years, when he had a passionate affair with Else Jaffé, the wife of another professor (and former student of Weber’s) at Heidelberg.

Else Jaffé: Passionate affair

Like her sister Frieda, who married D. H. Lawrence, Else had escaped from the aristocracy (she was born Baroness von Richthofen) into a bohemian existence, where she could enjoy more equal — and erotic — relationships with the educated men she preferred to her own caste. Among them were various members of their circle in Heidelberg, including Weber’s younger brother Alfred and the psychoanalyst Otto Gross, by whom she had a son. Indeed, Else was convinced that she, not her sister, was the true model for Lady Chatterley.

Of all her many lovers, however, Max Weber seems to have exercised the strongest magnetic attraction. His wife did not feel threatened by Else, but saw her ethereal presence as therapeutic. “The magic of her being is irresistible,” Marianne confided to her diary in 1911. Certainly the Webers’ move to Munich in 1919 was in part motivated by his need to be closer to Else. From his love letters it is clear that “the Else I serve” was a woman who stood up to him, with “a huge sense of mastery and power”.

As his biographer Radkau observes, the great theorist of domination evidently enjoyed being dominated himself. Not until after 1973, when Else died aged 99, did the details of their relationship become public knowledge. Though her side of the correspondence is lost, she was evidently the catalyst for the burst of productivity of Weber’s last year — a cathartic year that coincided with Imperial Germany’s defeat and the violent birth of the Weimar Republic.

The myth of Max Weber as a prophet of German democracy is largely based on the public lectures he gave during that last year. In them he expounded his ideas about politics and science as vocations to students, soldiers and others in settings that were anything but academic. He made it his business to teach the younger generation that they owed it to their country to do better than the deposed Kaiser and his dilettantes.

The shattering impact he made on these desperate young Germans was remembered long after his untimely death. Weber, the creator of the “ideal type”, set out the type of statesmanship he expected for the new, democratic Germany: “What is possible would never have been achieved if, in this world, people had not repeatedly reached for the impossible.

The truth is that Weber’s practical judgment in politics was at least as unreliable as anyone else’s

But the person who can do this must be a leader; not only that, he must, in the very simplest sense of the word, be a hero.” Alas, the hoped-for heroes of the Republic did not emerge; it was, rather, the communists and the Nazis who “reached for the impossible”.

The truth is that Weber’s practical judgment in politics was at least as unreliable as anyone else’s. As late as the autumn of 1917, long after the entry of the United States into the war, he claimed that, thanks to the collapse of Russia, “a military defeat of Germany was completely ruled out and that ultimate success was just a matter of time”. Even after the impossible had occurred and Germany had been defeated, Weber’s speeches embrace the “stab in the back” legend: “The revolution has made us defenceless and handed us over to enemy rule,” he told an audience of 7,000 in December 1918.

In March 1919, he incited students to adopt guerrilla warfare to resist the loss of German territories: “When the time comes, when you are determined not to give fine speeches but to quietly ensure that the first Polish official who dares to set foot in Danzig [now Gdansk] is met by a bullet — then I shall be with you, then come with me!” Anti-Polish prejudice has been a German vice since Frederick the Great; indeed, it still resurfaces today. So Weber knew exactly what he was doing.

Not only did he think democracy was compatible with nationalism but — in an emergency — with dictatorship too. In May 1919, before going to the Versailles peace conference as part of the German delegation, Weber met the architect of Germany’s defeat, General Ludendorff, and begged him in vain to hand himself over to the Allies for possible trial. Ludendorff told Weber that democracy was to blame for the revolution.

Weber replied: “Do you think that I regard this Schweinerei (filthy mess) that we have now as democracy?” Ludendorff: “What is your idea of democracy, then?” Weber: “In a democracy the people choose a leader whom they trust. Then the chosen man says, ‘Now, shut your mouths and obey me.’ The people and the parties are no longer free to interfere in the leader’s business.” Ludendorff: “I could like such a ‘democracy’.” Weber had the last laugh: “Later the people can sit in judgment. If the leader has made mistakes — to the gallows with him!”

Such expressions of nationalism, revanchism, even authoritarianism might have led some to conclude that Weber was a rather odd sort of democrat — and certainly not a benign influence on his younger compatriots. Indeed, he was a persuasive advocate of that section of the Weimar constitution which granted the elected president sweeping emergency powers, powers that just 14 years later were used by Ludendorff’s old comrade Field Marshal Hindenburg to install a government led by Adolf Hitler. The debate on Weber’s politics had began already before the Republic had been hollowed out and replaced by the Third Reich.

On the eve of that collapse, Karl Jaspers, the philosopher and Weber acolyte, published a short book about his master. It ends on an ominous note, warning that Weber’s thought only has meaning for those familiar with failure and death: “It is incomprehensible to those who, for the sake of the worldly pleasures which Max Weber himself cheerfully enjoyed, forget about death.” This portrait of Weber as an existentialist — foreshadowed in Jaspers’s earlier Psychology of World Views, where he appears as the irresistible “daemonic spirit” — still has its appeal, but now seems very much of its time.

More recent writers on Weber’s politics, from J-P Mayer to Wolfgang Mommsen, have reinvented him in the image of the postwar Federal Republic. As W.G. Runciman elegantly puts it in A Treatise on Social Theory, “It can plausibly be argued that the practices defining the roles constitutive of a capitalist mode of production, a liberal mode of persuasion, and a democratic mode of coercion will, other things being equal, systematically reinforce one another — or to put it in the metaphor which Max Weber liked to borrow from Goethe, that there is some sort of ‘elective affinity’ between the three.” Never mind that “Goethe” was, for Weber’s household, a codeword for “free love” — and Elective Affinities is a novel about sexual infidelity.

The point is that Weber is still worth reading and his life still has something to teach us precisely because his “daemonic” view of capitalism, liberalism and democracy emerged from the crucible of a society with such a tenuous hold on all three. In the Germany he loved and hated with equal vehemence, it was less an elective affinity than a suicide pact.

In her new tract for the times, Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends (Allen Lane, £16.99), Anne Applebaum castigates a motley collection of friends and acquaintances with whom she has fallen out, mainly over their support for Kaczynski’s Poland and Orbàn’s Hungary, Donald Trump’s America and Boris Johnson’s Britain. (Full disclosure: Anne is — still, I hope — a friend of mine.) In the course of championing democracy against “the people who create cacophony and chaos”, she identifies today’s populists and nationalists with the prewar Fascists and Nazis.

Since ancient Athens, the nation state has been the cradle of democratic politics

To bolster her case, she invokes various writers, from Orwell and Koestler to Julien Benda (La Trahison des Clercs) and Ignazio Silone. Max Weber is not among them; married to a Polish politician, Applebaum probably has no time for such a Polonophobe. Yet his story tells us that democracy finds strange bedfellows, including some whose raison d’être is to make music out of cacophony and order out of chaos.

Most of the statesmen of that era, from Stresemann and De Gaulle to Kemal Atatürk and Ben Gurion, were nationalists of various stripes. Even Churchill was not ashamed to stand for parliament in 1945 as a “Nationalist”. There is a reason for this: since ancient Athens, the nation state has been the cradle of democratic politics. Weber believed that democracy required heroic national leaders if it is to defeat its real enemies. Those enemies are today to be found in Beijing and Moscow, not Budapest and Warsaw, let alone Washington and London.

If this is the twilight of democracy, it is not dusk but dawn: the dawning of a new era of the nation state. It isn’t politics that has failed, but politicians. Were he alive today, Max Weber would surely demand that a democrat must display charisma, or make way for someone else. Democracy is an unforgiving system of unnatural selection. Those who can, lead. Those who can’t, lose.

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