Max Weber: Man of Our Time?

Max Weber died at the tail end of a pandemic, amid a growing street battle between the right and the left. What could he possibly have to say to us today?

I try to answer this, and some other questions, in my review this morning, in The New Yorker, of an excellent new translation, by Damion Searls, of Weber’s Vocation Lectures.

I have to confess, a little guiltily, that I get in a few shots against older leftists, of the ex-SDS type, who like to use (or misuse) Weber’s “ethics of responsibility” against the putative transgressions of younger leftists who are allegedly in thrall to an “ethics of conviction.” It’s one of those tropes in contemporary argument that I really don’t like.

Anyway, this piece took me a year and a half to write, and went through eleven drafts. I’ve never worked so much on a shorter piece of prose, I don’t think.

A taste:

Weber delivered the first of the two lectures, on the scholar’s work, on November 7, 1917, the day of the Bolshevik Revolution. One year later, a wave of revolution and counter-revolution swept across Germany. It didn’t break until after Weber delivered his second lecture, on the politician’s work, on January 28, 1919. Weber makes occasional, if oblique, reference to the swirl of events around him, but the dominant motif of both lectures is neither turbulence nor movement. It is stuckness. The particles of academic and political life have slowed to a halt; all that was air has become solid.

Weber’s complaints will sound familiar to contemporary readers. Budget-strapped universities pack as many students as possible into classes. Numbers are a “measure of success,” while quality, because it is “unquantifiable,” is ignored. Young scholars lead a “precarious quasi-proletarian existence,” with little prospect of a long-term career, and the rule of promotion is that “there are a lot of mediocrities in leading university positions.” Every aspiring academic must ask himself whether “he can bear to see mediocrity after mediocrity promoted ahead of him, year after year, without becoming embittered and broken inside.” The “animating principle” of the university is an “empty fiction.”

The state is equally ossified. 

When Weber constructed his theory, it was less a description than a prayer, a desperate bid to find friction in a world supposedly smoothed by structure. He was hardly the only social theorist to over-structure reality, to mistake the suspended animation of a moment for the immobilisme of an epoch. Tocqueville suffered from the same malady; Marcuse, Arendt, and Foucault shared some of its symptoms as well. But Weber needed the malady. The question is: Do we?

You can read the rest here.


  1. mark November 13, 2020 at 5:22 am | #

    The word Conservatism did not appear once in this essay.

  2. mark November 13, 2020 at 8:42 am | #

    That was a rewrite joke, by the way.

    The best jokes always need to be explained.

  3. John MacLean November 13, 2020 at 4:20 pm | #

    What a phrase: “the tutelage of suffering.” Karl Popper, even though he was against violence, saw two instances in which it was acceptable; the first was tyrannicide, and the second was the defense of social gains, but only to the point where peaceful change remained possible. Frank Snowden, in his recent book Epidemics and Society, writes about how when the focus is solely on a mostly invisible virus important unmet needs pass unattended too. This seems a good response to ant-political arguments that are thought to be based in Weber.

Leave a Reply