Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Max Weber – a hero in fighting German anti-semitism


     My friend Tracy Strong wrote a very useful comment on the section of the post on Leo Strauss – “Shadings – they consider me a ‘Nazi’ here” here -on the great social theorist Max Weber.  

"Dear Alan -- too much here for one response, although i do believe that it is Young-Bruehl, unless she has changed her name.[I corrected this on the post itself] But on Weber:  His relations to things Jewish is more complex.  In “Ancient Judaism”, he was influenced by Wellhausen (Israelistische Geschichte) who argued that the Mosaic Law was not that of a desert people but was that of free herdsmen -- thus anticipating a lot of contemporary work that tends to see the Exodus as retro-mything.  His favorite Biblical text was the Song of Deborah with its exaltation of a free warrior people (Judges 5). I believe the “lasciate ogni speranza” refers not to Lukacs but to [Georg] Simmel. Baumgarten tells us in his “Erinnerungen” that MW never forgave Dilthey, Rickert and Windelband for blocking Simmel's appt.  Honigsheim in the same volume says that Weber told him: "When approached about appointment lists, I usually submit a/a Jewish list and b/ a non-Jewish list.  The last one in a/ is usually better than the first one in b/.  But it is sure they will select from the b/ list." Weber knew and interacted with far more Jewish intellectuals than you allow. he was friends with Bloch, Georg Jellinek, Levin Goldschmidt (scholar of commercial law and his dissertation chair), Eberhard Gothein (cultural historian), Emil Lask, Ernst Lesser (Physiologist), Edgar Jaffe, etc... He always said that no one could do science without taking "Marx and Nietzsche into account".  His book on “Agrarian History of Rome” (1891) is quite close to Marx and obviously informed by him. My info is from me [Tracy is one of the world’s great experts on Weber], Radkau's massive biog., and an article on his dissertation in “History of Human Sciences” (16,2) by Lutz Kaebler. More soon, Vale Tracy.”

     Lukacs was not a candidate for a job in Germany that I know of; Tracy is right that Georg Simmel is probably whom Weber had directly in mind in making the remark that Jews must toil without hope in German academia.  That correction, however, and knowledge of the startling material Tracy relates about Weber’s a and b list for jobs in German academia  would have added to my theme in Democratic Individuality that Max Weber fought anti-semitism. His points also provide a good setting in which to emphasize how Leo Strauss, despite his admiration for Weber, was far to the Right of Weber politically.

      Democratic Individuality devotes 4 chapters to Weber, focused on his vision of great power rivalry – of Germany as a potentially great but have-not nation battling against the English empire on which “the sun never sets” (Prime Minister von Bulow spoke of ensuring Germany’s “place in the sun”). Weber oriented his social theory  – he declared – from such rivalry.  His views on status were heavily nationalist (the majority status can be mobilized across classes for war, for example).  An unsavory consequence:  his  own view of status was negative toward blacks and suggested a continuing hostility between blacks and whites (I contrast his thinking with Marx’s emphasis on  the  common interests between blacks and whites which  often led to movements from below like the Southern tenants alliance, the early Populist movement or the Industrial Workers of the World’s – the Wobblies’ - integrated organizing of Southern lumber workers). Similarly,  Weber’s views on Poles were initially racist; he said of Germans in his inaugural address for his chair at Freiburg in 1896 “we made Poles men.”  He modified his hostility toward the Poles for great power reasons during World War I, though at the same time, he said grotesque racist things about the British empire being defended by Ghurkas and other non-whites.  Weber’s views have shaped American political science and sociology on status and class.

       But Weber never shared the widespread academic anti-semitism which characterized German academia, the Christian Socialist movement and the like, long before the rise of Nazism.  His Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, as Democratic Individuality emphasizes, suggested the fundamental role of inner-worldly asceticism in creating capitalism (Catholicism devoted its asceticism to heaven; Calvin aside, Protestants thought, Weber suggested, that one built up credit on the cash register of grace by becoming an abstemious entrepeneur).  Though Weber does not explicitly say so, the animus of his view in German academia was the economic historian Werner Sombart who had suggested the capitalism arose from Jews whose souls had been baked by the Oriental sun (Jews contrast on Sombart’s view with Germans bred moistly in the dark forest).  Stepping aside from the climate-“race” determinism – or lunacy – of Sombart’s “hypothesis,”  Jews were too few, Weber argued, to have transformed Germany in this way.  On the contrary, Protestant inner-wordly asceticism explains English and German capitalism.  Thus, the force of Weber’s great work was to attack anti-semitic explanations in academia, and of course, in German politics. To put it even more strongly, Weber was an heroic anti-racist about the poisonous bigotry toward Jews characteristic of every gesture of upper class German life.  Especially given what Germany became, Max Weber deserves to be honored for this.

     Leo Strauss greatly admired Weber and studied him with some care (he was a third generation in Weber’s lineage: Carl Schmitt was Weber’s student and Strauss’s mentor).  Strauss took over – and never relinquished – Weber’s views on great power rivalry. But interestingly, his Nietzscheanism was far more thoroughgoing, dramatic, and, determinedly, against the Prophets than Weber’s. In effect, Weber, as Tracy says, saw Jews as a warrior people, and imagined himself a soldier and Germans comparable, later warriors.  In this respect, Weber was less like Nietzsche or Strauss.  In addition, Strauss was far to the Right of Weber, politically and intellectually; as a consequence, his views were much more tolerant of anti-semitism than Weber’s.  Strauss saw the whole modern world and the last men as a result of the prophets (see here).  Thus, I emphasized in the post on Strauss that Weber saw the ghosts of Protestant vocation in capitalist secularism and in the creation of the last men.  In Weber’s beautiful phrase at the end of the Protestant Ethic for this Nietzschean condition: Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart, this nullity imagines itself the greatest thing that civilization has achieved.  Here Weber concurs with Nietzsche on the extinguished religious roots of modern democracy and socialism, but only back to Protestantism, not nearly so far as Nietzsche.  Weber was much more pro-democratic than Nietzsche or Strauss (Strauss always hated democracy – he never says a single favorable word about democracy in Athens despite his enormous admiration for Athenian civilization – see Action and Argument of Plato’s Laws; he was very critical of Weimar, though he did welcome the government’s stand when Walter Rathenau, its interior minister, a Jew, was assassinated by a reactionary in 1923).  As Strauss told Franz Rosenszweig, he left Weber for Heidegger, thinking that Weber was comparatively an orphan-child (Waisenkind).  Yet he kept certain features of Weber’s view.

     For Weber was also a German imperialist (just not as crazy as the more reactionary ones).  He hoped that Social Democrats might come to power, to mobilize the workers behind a German empire that could defeat the British and mean in a thousand years that Weber might somehow awake again to “German faces.”  He even spoke of the Germans as a “Herrenvolk,” a term that would subsequently become much nastier with Hitler (Weber died in 1920 and the term in his writing is colonialist and racist, but not as directly genocidal).  One reason I wrote the section of Weber in Democratic Individuality is that American political science and sociology are to a large extent, pale imitations, Weber with the passion and the Nietzschean insights extinguished or alternately, Weber with the lights gone out.  There is nothing democratic about Weber’s sociology in its alleged value neutrality, in its shocking affirmation that status groups can be pitted against one another and majority status groups can despise minorities and wipe out their rights (one thinks of Justice Scalia’s appeals to what he calls “democracy”).  In contrast,  the treatment of each person as an equal with fundamental rights is the precondition of a decent democracy.  Yet, Weber’s sociology would make that ideal or hope or utopia “unrealistic” as John Rawls might put it. If sympathetic to modern political thought, liberal, conservative or radical, one should be very careful before one endorses Weber’s theory of status since it rules out a decent regime.   As I emphasize in Democratic Individuality, Weberian social science leaves the entire territory of well stated liberal or conservative argument to radicals.

     But since I have learned much from Weber and admire him greatly, another purpose I had was to emphasize that Weber, despite some leanings toward eugenics, had a startlingly strong anti-racist stand about Jews, one that he furthered in his greatest work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and yet one that he did not make explicit in the work (h/t Jeffrey Herf for a discussion long ago about this point).  Oddly, again, Strauss was far to the Right of Weber both with regards to fighting anti-semitism (his Nietzschean view, once again, made the tolerance of anti-semitism far deeper in Strauss, that uprooting the Prophets and celebrating the Kings was the only way forward) and with regard to parliamentary democracy.  Strauss came to admire the power of England registered in 10 Downing Street (he spoke of it strikingly in a 1934 letter to Kojeve).  Unlike Weber, he never saw parliamentary competition as a useful way (at times) of selecting leaders or expressed any affection for it.  From 1941 on, he admired Churchill as the great leader of an empire at war in countering Hitler.

      My theme therefore dovetails with Tracy’s account of Weber’s fighting against the academic politics that excluded Georg Simmel.  I am grateful to learn of all of this, and had I known of it – it is a delight of doing scholarship that one can discover more and more fascinating things over time, find glittering jewels with ever new facets – I would certainly have highlighted it.  Weber honorably  opposed the racism of his now famous colleagues, his startling remark on his recommendation of two lists of scholars, any one of whom among the Jews was usually superior to the Germans, and yet the others were always chosen...

       But my comment in the post here was not about Weber and Jews, of whom he knew many, but about Weber and Marx.  Tracy is right that Weber took Marx and Nietzsche, and in social theory, Marx and eugenics, very seriously.  I haven’t studied  Weber’s dissertation views on Rome deeply, but I think Tracy is probably right about that, also. Weber was often, Democratic Individuality argues, closely aligned with Marx.  Weber’s vision of elective affinities, for instance, for the sometimes rebellious theodicies of ill fortune in the religions of the poor, and the complacent theodicies of good fortune among the elite (second generation Calvinism among capitalists which abandoned the hiddenness of Predestination) is a useful refinement of Marx’s ideas about class struggle and religion.  In chapter 9, I use this theme, which Weber partly sees about radical artisans and peasants in Economy and Society, to undermine his famous thesis about the uniqueness of Protestant ideas in shaping entrepeneurship.  Thomas Muenzer, the leader of the great peasant war in Germany in 1525, was a radical Protestant, hated by Luther (who called for shooting down the peasants like dogs); the communist artisans of the 1840s were all Protestants who thought that the Kingdom of Heaven should not just be available to each believer (in German, not Latin), but that a republic on earth must be a social or egalitarian or red republic.  Protestantism is often (and again Weber acknowledges this in Economy and Society) far more radical than Weber’s argument in the Protestant Ethic requires.  For Weber is trying to suggest that Protestant ideas uniquely channel capitalist behavior; if Protestantism, however, is radically shaped by class forces (or the “elective affinities” as Goethe and Weber put it, of social groups for ideas), such a dialectic makes a refined version of Weber’s claim very close to Marx, not at all of the significance that American anti-radicals like Talcott Parsons, thought to find in Weber’s reputed “antidote” to Marx.

        As the post said, Weber did not know many Marxists and none among his senior colleagues.  In that narrow setting, he was comparatively open and serious about exploring radical views.  Yet his description of Marx’s account of the rise of capitalism shows no knowledge of Marx’s discussion in the first volume of Capital on “So-called primitive accumulation.”  In chapter 9, I spell out what a refined conflict between a Weberian and a Marxian view would look like in the light of relevant evidence.

     Tracy then wrote another instructive response to a briefer version of this reply

     “Lukacs was a very important and challenging figure for MW -- and at the time was somewhat of an aesthete -- (author of Heidelberger Aesthetik) -- such that he was most distressed by what he called the "dungeon of individuality" -- early on (around the time of his being in the Weberkreis) this came out as the redemptive power of art -- later it was communism (with and without a capital C).  John Seery had a very fine article on this in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology in the 70's, if memory serves  (you can get it from him at Pomona if you are interested).

There is a naturalism to the Habilitationschrift that belies the "idealist" interpretation of MW --- although I think you are right about talking to Marxists (which does not mean that he did not read Marx. And while it is pretty standard to read PE as an argument against primitive accumulation, the end of PE can also be read as an argument about the self-destruction of capitalism.

(My protestant self speaks out...

go well


        Perhaps I should add a further point in response.  In chapter 9 of Democratic Individuality, I ask the question: what would Lukacs have found to disagree with, morally, in Weber’s Protestant Ethic, something which might otherwise have prevented him from joining the Hungarian Communist Party?  Talcott Parsons, the once famous but increasingly obscure sociological theorist (one now has to remind students of his name, his jargon, drier than Weber at his worst, calls down a darkness that envelops him) and CIA man (he debriefed Nazi war criminals to be resettled in the US), translated the Protestant Ethic and helped coin its reputation as the great Weberian answer to Marx (He botches the reference to Nietzsche and the last men in the remarkable line about specialists without spirit…).  But as I trace, Weber refrains from moral judgments and it is far more difficult to find his sympathy for liberalism than his discontent with capitalism and its decline, sensualists without heart…Protestant asceticism in its heyday, he says, “fell like a frost on the life of Merrie Old England.”  Capitalist vocation goes from bad to worse.

        Here the agonies of value-free social science, all its debilities are before one’s eyes.  Promoted by Parsons for “answering” Marx, Weber is silent here about the alleged good of capitalism.  Hiding his liberalism behind another, he does quote Montesquieu (perhaps a model for Leo Strauss; Strauss learned to hide behind others not just from Nietzsche’s “masks” – Nietzsche is the most outspoken and psychologically insightful, Strauss the most hidden – but from Max Weber and the dreaded “value free” social science, which in this respect, ironically, Strauss emulates).  Montesquieu, Weber says, links English commerce, religion and liberty…

        Weber also invokes the gods of Valhalla, but this call, though a “value,” is nationalist and not moral, then or ever unless one happens to be waging a war of self-defense against aggression.  But the English “aggression” against Germany amounted only to depriving it of “Lebensraum” for an empire.  They were competing empires, as Lenin says in Imperialism (today’s liberal view of World War I – among the Lloyd Georges, the Clemenceaus and Woodrow Wilson who celebrated the Ku Klux Klan and launched invasions of Mexico, Haiti and Nicaragua and the like, Lenin alone denounced and organized against colonialism) and aggressors.  Morally, the invocation of Montesquieu is Weber’s liberalism.  This liberalism is real compared to Leo Strauss’s reaction.  More importantly, among his contemporaries, Weber deserves our admiration for fighting anti-semitism in Germany.

For an article by Tracy on Weber and Nietzsche, see

Tracy B. Strong ‘What have we to do with morals?' Nietzsche and Weber on history and ethics, History of the Human Sciences, 1992; 5; 9.


Debbie said...

Thanks Alan.

Living in isolation and objectifying Palestinians as non-human make it easier for Israel to think and do what they do. I agree with Goldstone that his report will ultimately assist the peace process because it nudges Israel ever so slightly out of this isolation and sets up the process of beginning to face the fear in an environment without the usual enablers.

The arc of the moral universe is long,
But it bends toward justice.
Abolitionist Theodore Parker


Josh said...


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