Politics as a Vocation

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Politics as a Vocation (Politik als Beruf) is an essay by German economist and sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920). It originated in the second lecture of a series (the first was Science as a Vocation) he gave in Munich to the "Free (i.e. Non-incorporated) Students Union" of Bavaria on 28 January 1919. This happened during the German Revolution when Munich itself was briefly the capital of the Bavarian Socialist Republic. Weber gave the speech based on handwritten notes which were transcribed by a stenographer. The essay was published in an extended version in July 1919, and translated into English only after World War II. The essay is today regarded as a classic work of political science and sociology.


Weber’s classic definition of the state as an entity which has a monopoly over the use of legitimate coercive power in a given territory is found at the beginning of “Politics as Vocation.” Politics, he in turn defines as the pursuit of power over the state.

Weber definition is the following: “The state is seen as the sole grantor of the 'right' to physical force. Therefore, ‘politics’ in our case would mean the pursuit for a portion of power or for influencing the division of power whether it is between states, or between groups of people which the state encompasses.”.[1] Following this definition, Weber notes that there are three principles justifying the legitimacy of political domination of the state, and these include traditional authority, charismatic authority, and legal authority.[2]

Much of the middle part of “Politics as Vocation” is made of up Weber’s definitions of charisma and leaders, and the type of people who are called to the profession of politics.[3] This is developed by lengthy historical descriptions of how modern politics emerged historical examples. Emphasis is placed on Great Britain, The United States, and Germany,[4] though examples from France, China, Rome, Ancient Greece and elsewhere are mentioned. In developing these examples, Weber demonstrates his grasp of comparative historical research. To do this, Weber describes the relationship between politicians, political parties, and the bureaucracies they create. In this section, Weber’s writing in “Politics as Vocation” is similar to his writing in another of his well-known essays “Bureaucracy.”

In the final section,” [5] of “Politics as Vocation, Weber returns to the job description of the politician. His main point is that the politician needs to balance an “Ethic of Moral Conviction,” with an “Ethic of Responsibility.” The Ethic of Moral Conviction refers to the core unshakeable beliefs that a politician must hold. The Ethic of Responsibility refers to the day-to-day need to use the means of the state’s violence in a fashion which preserves the peace for the greater good. A politician, Weber writes, must make compromises between these two ethics.

To do this, Weber writes “Politics is made with the head, not with the other parts of body, nor the soul”.[6] The most effective politician is one who can excite the emotions of the people who follow, while governing strictly with a cold hard reason the head. But this is a task normal humans cannot do, because they are vain.

Weber writes that vanity creates unique problems for politicians because they do indeed control the tools of legitimate violence.[7] Common vanity, Weber writes, means that politicians are tempted to make decisions based on emotional attachments to followers and sycophants, and not on the rational reasoning needed to govern justly and effectively. Weber finds this to be a common characteristic among politicians. As a result, Weber claims, the danger of politics is rooted in the relationship of the politician to the means of violence which are intrinsic to the state, and which will be misused by any vain politician. This is why Weber emphasizes that the practice of politics is so difficult, and not a task for someone who seeks salvation for their eternal soul through the practice of peace and brotherhood. In developing these points, he makes reference to the two kingdoms doctrine of Martin Luther, and the Holy Hindu Upanishads.

In the concluding sentences of the essay,[8] Weber comments on the German Revolution of 1919 which was underway when he wrote the essay. He gloomily predicts that the emotional excitement of the moment in 1919 will bring only “polar nights with an icy darkness and harshness, no matter what group will successfully seize power at present.” After saying this, Weber ends on a mildly optimistic note, when he writes “Only the person who is sure that he will not despair when the world, from his standpoint of view, is too simpleminded and wicked to accept what he has to offer, and only the person is able to say ‘In Spite of it All!’ has the calling for the profession of Politics!” [9]

Three grounds for legitimate rule[edit]

Weber defines politics as a form of "independent leadership activity". In this essay, the "state" serves as the placeholder for the analysis of political organizations. The grounds for the legitimate rule of these political organizations, according to Weber, fall into three major categories, or types:

The authority of "eternal past," based on habit. Weber defines custom as largely patriarchal, patrimonial, and traditional in scope.
Gift of grace/charisma
The authority of the "revelations, heroism, or other leadership qualities of an individual". Associated with "charisma" of prophets, demagogues, and popular vote.
Legal rational authority, legality based on valid statutes. Based on rational competence and obedience of the "servant of the state".

The two forms of the state[edit]

Weber focuses his analysis on "political organizations", i.e. "states", and identifies two general forms of the state, supposedly encompassing all state forms at the most general level:

  1. The administrative staff beneath the ruler in status and power has its own means of administration separate from those of the ruler. This can include various forms of wealth and possessions, as well as means of production and control over labor. This administrative staff is essentially aristocratic, subdivided into distinct estates;
  2. The administrative staff is completely or partially separated from the actual tools of administration, i.e., how the proletariat is separated from the means of production. This staff become confidants without means in a patriarchal organization of deference and delegation.

Weber delineates two different ideas of the "state" based on the relationship between the administrators and their access to the actual means of administration. The second form of the state is considered to be modern; the administrators do not own the money, buildings, and organizations they direct but are in the process of becoming expropriated expropriators by the actions of the monarch or the higher ruling class. With this expropriation completed, the leaders are then free to invest all resources in what way they choose, executive decisions often remaining with the discretion of the highest representatives.


"Politics as Vocation" has been translated into English at least three times. The first time by Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills, and published as part of From Max Weber (1946), secondly in The Vocation Lectures, translated by Rodney Livingstone and Edited by David Owen and Tracy Strong (2004), and most recently in Weber's Rationalism and Modern Society Translated and Edited by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters (Palgrave MacMillan 2015).

Weber, Max (1946). From Max Weber, tr. and ed. by H. H. Gerth, and C. Wright Mills. New York: Free press.

Weber, Max (2004). The Vocation Lectures, tr. by Rodney LIvingstone, and Edited by David Owen and Tracy Strong (Illinois: Hackett Books).

Weber, Max (2015). Weber's Rationalism and Modern Society. Translated and Edited by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Weber 2015:136
  2. ^ Weber 2015: 137-138
  3. ^ Weber 2015: 138-147
  4. ^ Weber 2015: 148-179
  5. ^ Weber 2015:179-178
  6. ^ Weber 2015:181
  7. ^ Weber 2015: 181-182
  8. ^ Weber 2015:197-198
  9. ^ Weber 2015:198

External links[edit]