Politics as a Vocation

by Brad Rathe

In the late teens of the twentieth century, Max Weber, a sociologist and highly respected intellectual, gave a series of two lectures by invitation at the University of Munich.[1] These lectures cover the topics of, first “Science as a Vocation” (in November 1917) and then “Politics as a Vocation” (in January 1919).[2] Given the recent event of Germany’s loss of the First World War and the resulting political turmoil at the founding of the Weimar Republic, there was almost an expectation, acknowledged by Weber himself at the beginning of the lecture, that he would give his “opinions on topical questions.”[3] This expectation was especially strong given Weber’s status as the most respected intellectual in Germany at the time.[4] What Weber covers instead, however, are the broader philosophical questions of what politics is and the general characteristics of people who have politics as their vocation or calling.

Politics and Power

Weber begins, very broadly, by stating the type of politics he will be addressing. He focuses his lecture upon politics as meaning the leadership of (or influence of leadership upon) a state. This broad definition, of course, leads him to another central question: What is a “state?” Weber defines the state as “the form of human community that (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a particular territory” (33). Politics, then, can be defined as striving to share power or influence the distribution of power between different states, or people within a state. A politician, therefore, is fundamentally concerned with power, “either…as a means in the service of other goals…or… ‘for its own sake’” (33-4). Weber then moves on to the ways in which that power is legitimated. According to Weber, there are three ways in which power can be legitimated. A leader can legitimate his or her power as a result of custom, gift of grace, or by virtue of statutes (34). The leader that is legitimated through charisma, he says, is most exemplary of one with politics as a vocation, because the qualities of leadership manifest most directly in him.

Centralization of Power in the Modern State

Another theme that Weber examines is the transition of society from a system in which administrators “own their own means of administration” to one where this class is separate from that which they administer (36-7). The means of government become concentrated in one person or body, rather than existing parallel to a leader. Weber uses as an example the old system of vassals owning fiefs for the older kind of governance, and the modern bureaucratic state as an example of the newer form where those under the leader are separate from (i.e. do not own) their means of governance. With the transition to a more centralized government, more executive decisions are made nearer to the top of the system, with most low-level administrators simply carrying out these decisions, as they have no personal ownership in the matter. Weber then moves into very specific examples of the way various societies work, especially in the cases of Britain, the United States, and Germany.

Characteristics of a Politician

The final topic Weber covers concerns the ethics that a politician, especially a leader, must possess to govern effectively. The three qualities a politician must have are “passion, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of proportion” (76). Weber explains passion as “a commitment to the matter in hand” or “the passionate dedication to a “cause” (76). He clarifies, however, that only passion is not enough. To be a politician, one needs that sense of responsibility to be the guiding force of action; a politician must feel a sense of responsibility for accomplishing that goal about which they are passionate. The crucial trait, however, that Weber points to is the sense of proportion in combination with passion. That sense of proportion is “the ability to allow realities to impinge on you while maintaining an inner calm and composure” (77).

In other words, a politician needs some distance from the people and things he governs. He cannot become too passionate about a goal and lose all sense of scope or what really matters. Weber calls for a balance between that passion and proportion. Without passion, politics is merely “a frivolous intellectual game,” but without proportion, the politician is condemned “to political impotence” (77). Another trait that must be balanced by a politician concerns the two different concepts of ethics: the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility. The former judges by the intention and the good or evil of an act, without thought to consequences. The latter takes into account the consequences of any action. Reaching a balance between the two is ideal for Weber.

Weber and Bureaucracy

One key aspect of “Politics as a Vocation” is the increasing bureaucratization of society. Karl Loewenstein, in his book, Max Weber’s Political Ideas in the Perspective of Our Time, details Weber’s general views of bureaucracy; Weber’s speech about bureaucracy during his lecture reflects some of Lowenstein’s claims– for example, that the “untrammeled rule of a bureaucracy” was “Political Enemy Number 1” for Weber.[5] Weber’s works in general spoke of bureaucracy as “inescapable” because of its “specialization and efficient technical training.”[6] Loewenstein even speaks of Weber observing, “how bureaucrats, conscious of and obsessed with power” exploited the system for their own ends.[7] This idea comes through very strongly in Weber’s text when he makes statements such as: “There has never been a social stratum that has failed to exploit its position in one way or another” (42). That disillusionment with politicians makes sense in view of his general views raised by Loewenstein.

Weber on the Bureaucrat as Leader

Weber’s distaste for the bureaucrat continues when he imagines a bureaucrat in a leadership role. Anthony Kronman, in Max Weber, further discusses Weber’s relationship with the idea of the bureaucrat. He analyzes Weber’s position in general on the bureaucrat as antithesis of the true leader, using “Politics as a Vocation” as a large body of evidence. He brings up Weber’s point that “the ‘proper vocation’ of the bureaucrat is ‘impartial administration.'”[8] He mentions that this renders that bureaucrat unable to do exactly what a political leader needs to do: “[To] fight. To take a stand, to be passionate.”[9] Again, Kronman links Weber’s statements in “Politics as a Vocation” to Weber’s general beliefs about the disadvantages of the rise of the bureaucrat at the expense of “real leaders.”[10] Weber found the modern state dissatisfying in that, in the modern state, “Instead of [leaders with ‘political ambition and the will to power and responsibility’] one finds bureaucratic office-holders.”[11] Kronman points out that Weber found these bureaucrats to be the opposite of “real leaders, leaders with ‘political ambition and the will to power and responsibility.'”[12]

Calling in the Context of Modernity

Another idea significant to “Politics as a Vocation” (“Science as a Vocation” too, for that matter) is the idea of the calling. Weber uses the German term Beruf, which is now commonly translated as “occupation.” Weber, however, uses the term in a way that would more appropriately be translated as “calling” or “vocation.” This interest in the idea of the calling is one way that Weber is often linked with the modernist tradition. Harvey Goldman links Weber with author Thomas Mann on this basis. Both Mann and Weber used the idea of calling to “analyze phenomena they took to be crucial for the development of the modern world.”[13] According to Goldman, both examined the problem of identity in their modern society, and both looked at this idea of calling as a solution to living a meaningful life “in a time of failed social ideals, cultural disorientation, and despair.”[14] “Politics as a Vocation” is a prime example of this tendency to address the problems of modern life through the concept of calling.

  1. ↑ David Owen and Tracy B. Strong, “Introduction,” Max Weber: The Vocation Lectures, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004), pp. xii-xiii.
  2. ↑ Dirk Käsler, Max Weber: An Introduction to His Life and Work (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 22.
  3. ↑ Max Weber, The Vocation Lectures, d. David Owen and Tracy B. Strong, trans. Rodney Livingstone. (Indianapolis: Hackett Company, 2004), p. 32. All subsequent parenthetical citations refer to this edition.
  4. ↑ Owen, p. xi.
  5. ↑ Lowenstein, Max Weber’s Political Ideas in the Perspective of Our Time, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1966), p. 30.
  6. ↑ Ibid., p. 31.
  7. ↑ Ibid.
  8. ↑ Kronman, Max Weber (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1983), p. 177.
  9. ↑ Ibid.
  10. ↑ Ibid., p. 176.
  11. ↑ Ibid.
  12. ↑ Ibid.
  13. ↑ Goldman, Max Weber and Thomas Mann: Calling and the Shaping of the Self (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), p. 2.
  14. ↑ Ibid.