Playing with Fire (Again): Authoritarian Tendencies in Max Weber’s Thought

David Little

Street sign of Max Weber Square. Cholo Alemen on Wikimedia (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

In an earlier article in this publication on Robert A. Yelle’s book, Sovereignty and the Sacred, I claimed that Yelle fails to take seriously the distressing theoretical and practical implications of the work of Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), the German legal theorist rightly called, as I tried to show, the “crown jurist of National Socialism.”  Except for one stray passage quoted in the article where Yelle acknowledges as “understandable” the desire to constrain absolute sovereignty by means of moral and legal rules (27), he displays a distinct sympathy for Schmitt’s concerted attack on “the rule of law, constitutionalism, and international law” as belonging to a “deceptive” “modernist political vision” “predicated on illusions,” in the apt characterization of one contributor to a symposium on Sovereignty and the Sacred (553).  

For Yelle, such concepts are examples of “rule-obsessed modernity” that neurotically attempts to obscure from recognition the “acts of founding violence” underlying modern society and presupposing a notion of absolute sovereignty that challenges all forms of moral and legal regulation (1, 11). The problem is Yelle does not fully appreciate that although moral and legal rules certainly do give way to absolute sovereignty on occasion, it does not follow that they ought to do so on principle, which is what Schmitt holds.

There is a similar shortcoming in the case of a second figure, the German sociologist, Max Weber (1864-1920), on whom Yelle also heavily depends. Schmitt followed Weber’s work closely, though it remains controversial whether he was a “legitimate pupil,” as has been claimed. Certainly, Weber’s problems are not as straightforward as Schmitt’s nor does Yelle accept him as uncritically as he does Schmitt.  

Weber is of special interest because he provides what Yelle thinks is a key link between political and religious ideas of sovereignty. Schmitt does that, too, but the two men differ in approach. Schmitt declares in Political Theology that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of state are secularized theological concepts.” He means that Deism, a theological movement originating in England in the 17th– and 18th-centuries with a following in America, held that God’s action is bound by the laws of nature and reason, and thereby propounded a religious belief that, when secularized, substantiated “the idea of the modern constitutional state” (36).

By contrast, Weber contends that certain central features of the modern secular state, especially the grounds for political authority or sovereignty, derive from Anglo-Saxon Calvinist Puritanism

By devaluing monastic and other forms of spiritual practice, and elevating in their place the religious importance of worldly activity in government and business, the Puritans, Weber thought, inspired commitment to a formally rational system of law and bureaucracy that came to dominate modern political and economic life in secularized form. 

Yelle prefers Schmitt’s view, but still accepts important aspects of Weber’s thought.  Unfortunately, with Weber as with Schmitt, he fails to think through carefully the theoretical and practical implications of Weber’s ideas, a failure that is not as serious as in Schmitt’s case, but is troubling enough.    

Yelle specifies his understanding of sovereignty in relation to Weber’s famous ideal types of authority (44-47). He takes as central to his whole endeavor what for Weber is the primary or foundational type, “charismatic authority.” According to Weber’s full definition, it is the “certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which [that individual] is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities…[that] are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a ‘leader’ (Führer)” (241). It will be noted that this definition suggests a close, though by no means necessary, connection between sovereignty and religion, and also explicitly describes charismatic authority in terms of personal leadership to be understood in its “primary sense,” Weber adds elsewhere, as “authoritarian” in nature (266).

While inviting institutional regulation on the one hand, charismatic authority invariably defies it on the other. “Charisma is by nature not a continuous institution, but in its pure type the very opposite” (1113). In face of attempts to harness charisma to the conventions of the past, as defenders of traditional authority do, or to bring it under the control of the laws of a constitutional regime or the rules of a bureaucratic order, as advocates of legal-rational authority do, charismatic authority stands in essence for “the extraordinary and unheard of,” being “alien to all regulation and tradition,” and knowing “no abstract laws and regulations and no formal adjudication.” “In a revolutionary and sovereign manner charismatic [authority] transforms all values and breaks all traditional and rational norms,” in arresting words Yelle correctly quotes from Weber (45; 1115). Yelle’s description of charismatic authority as fundamentally “antinomian,” meaning opposed to norms of all kindslegal as well as moral, is fully supported in Weber’s writings.

All this is correct so far as it goes, but there is one oversight. Yelle leaves out a fourth type of authority beside charismatic, traditional, and legal-rational whose place in Weber’s thought it is important to understand. The category is “value-rationality,” meaning “a conscious belief in the value for its own sake of some ethical, aesthetic, or religious, or other form of behavior, independently of the prospects of success” (24-25). Weber is not altogether clear or consistent in discussing this type of authority. Nevertheless, he does mention it now and again, and in a notable way. He implies that action based on value-rationality and on a belief in charisma share “a common element, namely that the meaning of the action does not lie in the achievement of a result ulterior to it, but in carrying out the specific…action for its own sake” (25). In speaking this way, Weber implies that charisma and value-rationality are both substantively evaluative by expressing ideals of right and wrong and good and bad.  At the same time, appeals to value-rationality, or what Weber also calls, “substantive rationality,” are very different from appeals to charisma in that they formulate such ideals in terms of discrete “criteria of ultimate ends” according to which rational standards and rules based on things like the “elements of social justice and equality” can logically be deduced and applied. In contrast, charisma by its very nature defies all rational standards and rules. In addition, value-rationality is distinguished from legal, or what is called, “formal rationality,” in that the latter represents a standard “capable of being expressed in numerical, calculable terms” (85-86), as with the estimation of profits in modern capitalist economies or the determination of elections in modern democracies. It is this side of Weber’s understanding of rationality with which Yelle is exclusively preoccupied.

Weber occasionally acknowledges the impact of value-rationality. “The purest type of legitimacy based on value-rationality is,” he says, “natural law” (37; original italics), a concept he takes to signify universally obligatory “general norms of conduct” that are moral in character and that are based on metaphysically objective notions like “Nature” and “Reason” (869-870). He concedes that “natural law dogmas have influenced more or less considerably both lawmaking and lawfinding,” particularly in regard to revolutionary movements of the 17th and 18th centuries by guaranteeing “individual rights vis-à-vis the political authorities” (873).

Nevertheless, Weber goes on to claim that “the influence of its logically deduced propositions upon actual conduct has lagged far behind its ideal claims” (37). In fact, before the doctrine could have any truly enduring effect, it was “destroyed” and “annihilated,” at first by “rapidly growing positivistic and relativistic-evolutionistic skepticism,” and “anti-metaphysical radicalism,” and then conclusively by a combination of Marxism, Comteanism, and Realpolitik.  Consequently, the “the axioms of natural law have lost all capacity to provide the fundamental ideas of a legal system” (873-875). Whether this conclusion is correct, either historically or theoretically, remains an open question to be explored elsewhere.

It remains to explain how all this bears on Weber’s political thought. He died in 1920, before the rise of Nazism, so the scholarly debate over his connection to National Socialism is of course conjectural. Still, there are grounds for detecting in his thought at least some worrisome tendencies in that direction. These tendencies raise questions about the adequacy of Weber’s theory of sovereignty that are comparable in some ways to the problems with Schmitt’s theory.

Weber’s attraction to “Leader Democracy” (Führerdemokratie) or “Caesarism” as the most appropriate form of modern mass democracy appears to open the door to authoritarian government. Weber describes Caesarism as a “variant of charismatic authority, which hides behind a legitimacy that is formally derived from the will of the governed. The leader (demogogue) rules by virtue of the devotion and trust which his political followers have in him personally” (268; italics added). “The specifically Caesarist instrument is the plebiscite. This is not the usual ‘casting of votes’, or ‘election’; rather it is a confession of ‘belief’ in the vocation for leadership of the person who has just laid claim to this acclamation” (221).

An important attribute of such a leader, on Weber’s view, is his ability to rise above the law by disregarding, when suitable, ordinary constitutional and bureaucratic constraints. On one occasion toward the end of his life he characterized his view of democracy as a system where the people acclaim a leader and then “shut up and obey,” while reserving the right, if they so decide, to condemn the leader to the gallows at the end of his term (146-147.)

To be sure, even in this bleak picture there is some provision for popular accountability—however stark and gruesome (and opposed to the peaceful transfer of power) it may be. At various points in his career, Weber did support strong parliamentary government as an effective means for choosing creative leaders, and as “a guarantee for civil rights in face of the leader’s power” (114). In the same spirit, he spoke out after World War I in favor of liberalism in Germany and Russia and in opposition to authoritarian government.  Most importantly, he would certainly have resisted many of the excesses of the Hitler regime, such as the centralized state, government interference in academic life, and, above all, virulent anti-semitism (239).

Weber’s conviction that “democratization and demagogy belong together” (220) also caused him some disquiet.  He saw that “a successful demagogue” might well be regarded as “the one who is most unscrupulous in his choice of the means to woo the masses” (218). Still, he came to believe that a government led by a popularly acclaimed Caesrarist demagogue, understood as the proper embodiment of charismatic authority, represented, finally, the only opportunity to escape “the stifling confinement (Gehäuse) of bureaucratic regimentation” (268) that is imposed by a pervasive “legal-rational” system of formal laws and rules in modern political and economic life, something Yelle describes as “rule-obsessed modernity.” Weber felt so strongly about it that he continued to support a Caesarist regime even while believing that popular “co-rulership” (129), which the regime is supposed to bring about, is, after all, “fictitious” or nothing but an illusion to “hide behind” (267-268).

Unlike Schmitt, Weber did not think of political sovereignty as utterly devoid of moral significance, as being “beyond both good and evil,” in Yelle’s description of Schmitt’s attitude (11).  For Weber, the true political leader, whose demagogic charisma legitimates the right to rule, should be bound by an “ethic of responsibility,” which distinguishes leaders who “live off of” from those who “live for politics.”  It involves three critical qualities: a “passionate commitment to a ‘cause’,” a sense of responsibility for realizing that cause, and “judgment,” meaning “the ability to maintain one’s inner composure and calm” in face of the conditions of political life (353). 

At the same time, this ethic is substantially diluted or stripped down. For one thing, what is achievable is accommodated to the hard realities of mundane life. Unlike the alternative, an “ethic of ideal ends,” which, as in the Sermon on the Mount, calls for universal love and peace, the ethic of responsibility adapts radically to “the ethical irrationality of the world.”  It is impossible for true believers in “unworldly goodness” to operate in the world of politics. Politics is defined and directed by the use of force, a practice suffused with “diabolical powers” because when force is used good is accomplished by doing harm (261-266). One consequence of this view is that the ethic of responsibility does not allow for moral and legal distinctions regarding the use of force.

For another, the qualities of the ethic of responsibility are purely formal. Calmness and composure can probably be assessed on their own terms, but Weber nowhere tells us how to distinguish a good cause from a bad one in judging whether a leader has been “responsible” in performing as he should. Having a leader passionately committed to an objectionable cause, even if it is put into practice with cool deliberation, is not an entirely satisfying formula for legitimate authority.   

 Of course, Weber is precluded from providing any transsubjective substantive moral standards by which to evaluate a demagogue’s performance, both because he summarily dismissed value-rational principles, like natural law, and, indeed, effectively dropped altogether the category of value rationality as sociologically useful, and also because he embraced a theory of value pluralism. On this theory, everyone is inescapably “subject to the struggle between [conflicting] sets of values, each of which, viewed separately, seems to impose [its own different] obligation” (78-79). Particular moral values might appear compelling, respectively, for one individual or another, but it is impossible, Weber believed, to adduce a reliable basis on which to hold others beyond the particular individual accountable to such values. In the last analysis, morality can have no objective status, an assumption that is completely consonant with Weber’s beliefs about the sui generis character of the values of charismatic authority.

As hinted earlier, Weber took the full consequences of his theory of legitimate authority especially toward the end of his life. As a participant in the drafting of the Weimar Constitution in 1917, he actively favored a “Caesaristic president” very much in line with his image of a free-wheeling charismatic authority. According to his proposals, such a president should indeed have wide discretion to suspend laws and ignore parliamentary oversight as required. His “final constitutional scheme did not provide the guarantees against the negative aspects of Caesarism that he had previously insisted upon, and his strong leader was legitimated by a conception of democracy that was anything but democratic” (239). As a result, Weber did help pave the way for the greatly expanded exercise of executive authority in the German government of his time that would make things much easier later for someone like Hitler to ascend to power. In that sense, Weber surely bore some “co-responsibility for the Nazi takeover, though the result was an unintended consequence of his constitutional design” (144, original italics). ♦

David Little is at present a research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, having served before that as Professor of the Practice in Religion and International Affairs at Harvard Divinity School, and as Senior Fellow in Religion, Ethics, and Human Rights at the United States Institute of Peace. In 2015, Cambridge University Press published Essays on Religion and Human Rights: Ground To Stand On, and a book of responses to his work by colleagues and former students: Religion and Public Policy: Human Rights, Conflict, and Ethics, ed. by Sumner B. Twiss, Marian Gh. Simion, and Rodney L. Petersen.

Recommended Citation

Little, David. “Playing with Fire (Again): Authoritarian Tendencies in Max Weber’s Thought.” Canopy Forum, February 29, 2024.