Politics as a Vocation

A review of Politics as a vocation by Rob Mason

Politics as a vocation

"Politics as a Vocation" is an essay by German economist and sociologist Max Weber. It originated in the second lecture of a series he gave in Munich to the "Free Students Union" of Bavaria on 28 January 1919. Wikipedia

Karl Emil Maximilian "Max" Weber was a German sociologist, philosopher, jurist, and political economist whose ideas profoundly influenced social theory and social research. Wikipedia

Born: April 21, 1864, Erfurt, Germany
Died: June 14, 1920, Munich, Germany

Sociology is the study of social behaviour or society, including its origins, development, organization, networks, and institutions. It is a social science that uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about social order, disorder, and change.

The essay starts off by asking the question: What do we understand by politics? The concept is extremely broad and comprises any kind of independent leadership in action.  One speaks of the currency policy of the banks, of the strike policy of a trade union, or the education policy of a municipality or township. Hoever we wish to understand by politics only the leadership, or the influencing of the leadership of a political association, hence today, of a state.

But what is a political association from the sociological point of view?   Sociologically, the state cannot be defined in terms of it's ends.  There is scarely any task that some political association has not taken in hand, and there is no task that one could say has always been exclusive and peculiar to those associations which are designated as political ones: today the state or historically, those associations which have been the predecessors of the modern state.  Ultimately, one can define the modern state sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely, the use of physical force.

'Every state is founded on force,' said Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk. That is indeed right. If no social institutions existed which knew the use of violence, then the concept of 'state' would be eliminated, and a condition would emerge that could be  designated as 'anarchy,' in the specific sense of this word. Of course, force is certainly not the normal or the only means of the state--nobody says that--but force is a means specific to the state. Today the relation between the state and violence is an especially intimate one. In the past, the most varied institutions--beginning with the sib--have known the use of physical force as quite normal. Today, however, we have to say that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Note that 'territory' is one of the characteristics of the state. Specifically, at the present time, the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it. The state is considered the sole source of the 'right' to use violence. Hence, 'politics' for us means striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state.

This corresponds essentially to ordinary usage. When a question is said to be a 'political' question, when a cabinet minister or an official is said to be a 'political' official, or when a decision is said to be 'politically 'determined, what is always meant is that interests in the distribution, maintenance, or transfer of power are decisive for answering the questions and determining the decision or the official's sphere of activity. He who is active in politics strives for power either as a means in serving other aims, ideal or egoistic, or as 'power for power's sake,' that is, in order to enjoy the prestige-feeling that power gives.

Like the political institutions historically preceding it, the state is a relation of men dominating men, a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e. considered to be legitimate) violence. If the state is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be. When and why do men obey?  Upon what inner justifications and upon what external means does this domination rest?

To begin with, in principle, there are three inner justifications, hence basic legitimations of domination. First, the authority of the 'eternal yesterday,' i.e. of the mores sanctified through the unimaginably ancient recognition and habitual orientation to conform. This is 'traditional' domination exercised by the patriarch and the patrimonial prince of yore. 

There is the authority of the extraordinary and personal gift of grace (charisma), the absolutely personal devotion and personal confidence in revelation, heroism, or other qualities of individual leadership. This is 'charismatic' domination, as exercised by the prophet or--in the field of politics--by the elected war lord, the plebiscitarian ruler, the great demagogue, or the political party leader.

Finally, there is domination by virtue of 'legality,' by virtue of the belief in the validity of legal statute and functional 'competence' based on rationally created rules. In this case, obedience is expected in discharging statutory obligations. This is domination as exercised by the modern 'servant of the state' and by all those bearers of power who in this respect resemble him.

It is understood that, in reality, obedience is determined by highly robust motives of fear and hope--fear of the vengeance of magical powers or of the power-holder, hope for reward in this world or in the beyond--and besides all this, by interests of the most varied sort. Of this we shall speak presently. However, in asking for the 'legitimations' of this obedience, one meets with these three 'pure' types: 'traditional,''charismatic,' and 'legal.' 

These conceptions of legitimacy and their inner justifications are of very great significance for the structure of domination. To be sure, the pure types are rarely found in reality. But today we cannot deal with the highly complex variant, transitions, and combinations of these pure types, which problems belong to 'political science.' Here we are interested above all in the second of these types: domination by virtue of the devotion of those who obey the purely personal 'charisma' of the 'leader.' For this is the root of the idea of a calling in its highest expression.

Devotion to the charisma of the prophet, or the leader in war, or to the great demagogue in the ecclesia orin parliament, means that the leader is personally recognized as the innerly 'called' leader of men. Men do not obey him by virtue of tradition or statute, but because they believe in him. If he is more than a narrow and vain upstart of the moment, the leader lives for his cause and 'strives for his work.' The devotion of his disciples, his followers, his personal party friends are oriented to his person and to its qualities.

Charismatic leadership has emerged in all places and in all historical epochs. Most importantly in the past, it has emerged in the two figures of the magician and the prophet on the one hand, and in the elected war lord, the gang leader and condottiere (on the other hand. Political leadership in the form of the free 'demagogue' (who grew from the soil of the city state is of greater concern to us; like the city state, the demagogue is peculiar to the Occident and especially to Mediterranean culture. Furthermore, political leadership in the form of the parliamentary 'party leader' has grown on the soil of the constitutional state, which is also indigenous only to the Occident.
The demagogue: in ancient Greece and Rome) a leader or orator who espoused the cause of the common people. A political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.