German sociologist Max Weber. Photo: Twitter


Redemptorist leaders, daffodils in love with their self-proclaimed moral beauty, are not responsible for the consequences of their actions. This ironclad truth was the subject of “Politics as a Vocation,” a famed conference offered by German sociologist Max Weber in January 1919 in Munich . His words then reverberate in our current time.

The circumstances when Weber gave that speech were dramatic: Germany had lost the war. In the midst of the economic crisis and social discouragement, ideological polarization spread: Nationalist resentment appealed to Germanic myths, revolutionary messianism sought to emulate the recent Bolshevik triumph.

Weber was speaking to an audience made up of young anarchists and communists, all in good faith. One of them, the playwright Ernst Toller, left a significant testimony:

“It is Max Weber whom the youth of that time turned to see, deeply attracted by his intellectual honesty. Weber detested political romanticism … the Prussian order, based on class distinction, must go, along with the power of the bureaucracy. We had to make way for a parliamentary government, with democratic control,” Toller wrote.

Weber was defending the nascent and fragile German republic, but the young people did not appreciate his message.

“Our concern,” Toller said, “went beyond the sins of the Kaiser or electoral reform. We wanted to create a new world, we hoped to transform the existing order to change the hearts of men.”

And then Toller addressed the mentor: “Show us the way. We have waited long enough.”

But the master had no prophecies to offer them. What he could transmit was the essence of his political thought, the fruit of a sociological work that encompassed all cultures and civilizations.

His premise consisted of recognizing “the tragic warp on which the plot of all human activity and especially political activity is based.” From it, he defined politics as “the rough and slow drilling of hard boards” which, precisely because it was so, demanded very precise qualities from politicians.

One of them, without a doubt, was the passionate dedication to a cause, but Weber advised guiding it with moderation, prudence. The balance was difficult, because vanity, typical of demagogues, conspired against both: “There is no more pernicious distortion … than the boasting of power,” Weber warned.

The young people hoped that he would morally bless their revolutionary efforts, but Weber, faithful to his scientific vocation, discouraged them. Between ethics and politics there was an unavoidable tension:

“Whoever seeks the salvation of his soul and that of others should not do so along the path of politics whose tasks, which are very different, can only be fulfilled through force,” he said.

Weber maintained the impossibility of sustaining political action on the absolute ethics of the Gospel and dedicated the dramatic end of his lecture to elucidating this idea. But, in practical terms, he presented his listeners with two possibilities: to act under the “ethics of conviction” or under the “ethics of responsibility.”

Although he was not unaware of the cynical pragmatism that could mask the apparently “responsible” politician, he advised adopting the “ethic of responsibility,” that is, the constant concern that the politician should show for the results of his actions.

That concern did not exist in those who practiced the “ethics of conviction.” For those “enlightened ones,” Weber warned, the sublime end justifies all means, and if the means lead to results that are different or contrary to those expected, the revolutionary never assumes responsibility for it. Ultimately he “will hold the world responsible, the stupidity of men or the will of God, who made them so.”

Weber’s message did not get through to his audience. Months later, the young idealists established a chaotic and fleeting Soviet Republic, whose results, tragically, discredited German socialism and encouraged their criminal adversaries — fanatical racists, brutal militarists, irreducible anti-Semites — to seize power and suppress them with unspeakable fury.

Vladimir Lenin encouraged the former; Adolf Hitler — present in Munich when Weber spoke — was preparing to lead the unstoppable march of the seconds, who would ultimately prevail.

Max Weber would die a year later at age 56, a victim of the Spanish flu and aware that Germany, incapable of responsible democratic leadership, was entering “the icy polar night of darkness and sorrow” that he had feared and prophesied.

The above article first appeared in Reforma and is being republished in Pulse News Mexico with express prior permission.

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