Max Weber is today known for his sharp sociological pen in which he created word pictures of processes like bureaucracy, politics, capitalism, power, and inequality which underlie not only his society, but ours today. He was also known as a proponent of “value free” sociology, in which the sociologist would analyze without respect to personal political views.
But Weber was not only a sociologist, he was also an active politician who through the force of his words, access to German power-brokers, and prolific pen brought him renown as an advocate for the German war cause in general, and his own German Democratic Party (DDP) in particular. He used this podium to great effect, castigating his political opponents in sharp pungent language. For example, on November 4, 1918, one week before the end of World War I, he loudly proclaimed the “idiocy” (Dummheit) of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points.
But in my view, the true breadth of Weber’s frenetic writing emerged especially strong in January 1919, in three separate places. During this month Weber was given a prominent platform as a candidate on the DDP list standing of candidates for the new German Parliament, as a journalist seeking to justify to the world why Germany was not responsible for World War I, and finally as that “value free” sociologist given access to the lecture podium at the University of Munich where he explained why nine out of then politicians (i.e. people like himself) “are windbags puffed up with hot air about themselves.”
Here is what he had to say
- Standing (unsuccessfully) on the DDP list for the new German parliamentary elections of January 1919 and making many speeches proclaiming sentiments like: “ We have this [German] revolution to thank for the fact that we cannot send a single division against the Poles. All we see is dirt, muck, dung, and horse-play—nothing else. Liebknecht belongs in the madhouse and Rosa Luxemburg in the zoological gardens.” (see Radkau 2009:507) (Liebknecht and Luxemburg were the leaders of the “Spartacist” party in Berlin which briefly seized control of the government there. They were assassinated a few days after Weber made this speech).
- Justifying Germany’s war conduct in an essay “War Guilt” published in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine in January 1919, Weber blamed the Russians and Belgians for provoking World War I: “ In the case of this war there is one, and only one power that desired it under all circumstances through its own will and, according to their political goals required: Russia. . . . It never crossed [my] mind that a German invasion of Belgium [in 1914] was nothing but an innocent act on the part of the Germans . ”
- Tortured by very nature of politicians in the analytical “Politics as Vocation” (January 28, 1919), Weber proclaims: “In nine out of ten cases they are windbags puffed up with hot air about themselves. They are not in touch with reality, and they do not feel the burden they need to shoulder; they just intoxicate themselves with romantic sensations.” (pp. 20-21, Weber’s Rationalism, Edited and Translated by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters, 2015).
So there you have it, all in one month: Political opponents belong respectively in the madhouse and/or zoological gardens; the Russian Czar wanted war, and the Belgians provoked their own invasion. To be concluded by a speech “Politics as Vocation” which insisted that politicians are out of touch with reality, and simply intoxicate themselves with romantic sensations.
Students often ask me if this means Weber was a hypocrite when it comes to politics. They ask, how could his insight be so penetrating in essays like “Politics as Vocation,” if he lacked even the least amount of graciousness when challenging his political opponents? Didn’t he have a deeper understanding which should lead to the gift of empathy?
Well, yeah, duh, he was a hypocrite. As I learned from a third grade bully name caller some years ago: “Takes one to know one!”
(The same thing could be said, I suppose, of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who lived off the profits of the Engels family capitalist firm, Barman and Engels. Takes one to know one!)