Comments on Edith Hanke’s Four Theses: On the meaning of the concept of democracy in the late Max Weber)

Comments on Edith Hanke’s Four Theses:

On the meaning of the concept of democracy in the late Max Weber

Sérgio da Mata

History Department

Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto, Brazil

The decisive question in our discussion can be formulated in a concise manner: Was Max Weber a Democrat? As the historical-systematic approach proposed by Edith indicates, it would be more appropriate to ask how he became a democrat and what form of democracy he favored. It is clear, on the other hand, that the question cannot be answered once and for all. We need to take many nuances into account, but it is precisely for this reason – I believe – that our discussion becomes interesting.

Edith shows us that Johannes Winckelmann tried to “establish Max Weber as a ‘good democrat’ in post-war Germany”. In fact, judging by the names that were influenced by Weber, the dualities were already evident from a very early age. The arc ranges from liberals like Karl Loewenstein and Theodor Heuss to socialists like Antonio Gramsci and Karl August Wittfogel and even authoritarians like Arnold Gehlen and Carl Schmitt. Max Weber has many “legitimate students”!

For sure, it makes no sense to return to Wolfgang Mommsen’s famous monography or the debates held at the Heidelberg Sociological Congress of 1964. Maybe it is enough to mention just three works published since 2020 to keep in mind how the discussion around Weber’s “place” as a thinker of democracy still remains open. My Brazilian colleague Carlos Sell concludes that Weber was a “democratic-progressive thinker: democratic in his political visage, progressive in his social visage”. German political scientists are less optimistic than Sell. Jens Hacke recognized that Weber does not have a normative theory of democracy, that he says nothing about “participation” and that he has a preference for “charismatic decisions”. On the other hand, for Hacke Weber has the advantage of not being guided by a prior theory of the political. What makes Weber interesting for us is his vision of politics as it actually works in specific historical constellations, of politics conceived of as a universe of choices, decisions and actions that always has to deal with contingencies. In an essay published last year, Philip Manow, in turn, showed that we also need to consider the things that Weber does not talk about – for instance: popular sovereignty and legitimacy through popular voting. In fact, in “Politics as a Vocation” Weber makes clear his skepticism about the introduction of proportional voting (Verhältniswahlrecht) in Germany!

That being said, I move on to my comments on the theses presented by Edith.

First Thesis: Weber is more interested in democratization as a process than in democracy as a concept

This aspect clearly reflects the historical situation in which Germany found itself between 1917 and 1919. For Weber there was just only one path to follow if Germany wanted to continue to exist as a nation. The model, in general terms, should be British. Like many so-called “rational republicans” (Vernunftrepublikaner) – a word that sounds almost like a dream today –, his conversion to democracy was dictated by the circumstances. But the dramatic picture of those years seemed to disturb Weber’s clarity of thought and ability to systematize. When it comes to democracy, a champion of clarity like Weber seems to lose his luster (he said at the same context that clarity was one of the most important things that one can achieve through science). Not that his formulations are not clear, but because in this case a “big picture” does not emerge.

It is fair to criticize Weber for that? Every exhaustive, systematic work needs time and tranquility to be completed – things that Max Weber did not have when he wrote his most important political essays. But we cannot excuse him for everything he wrote. His idea, which is either completely naive or deeply conservative, that a country needs “maturity” to reach democracy calls our attention. The somewhat conventional view he had of cultural processes – despite all the neo-Kantian conceptual machinery – perhaps helps explain this.

I completely agree that Weber is interested in the relationship between democratization and bureaucratization. At the same time, I would like to emphasize just one thing: for Weber, the first process (i.e., democratization) is contingent, but the second one (i.e., bureaucratization) is not. In this respect, I disagree with the interpretation of my friend Jens Hacke. Weber’s political vision is at the same time teleological and pessimistic: increasing bureaucratization conspires against democracy, or rather: against freedom.

Second Thesis: the ideal type of democracy is not an autonomous type of domination/legitimacy

Edith demonstrates this thesis with several excerpts from Weber’s texts, and I can only agree with her. Democracy in its purest expression would be the “lack of domination”, something that for Weber was possible in past societies, such as the Greek polis, or in nations with little territorial extension such as Switzerland. In the modern world and in mass societies the dream of a herrschaftsfreie Leben (a life “free from domination” or “absent of rule”) cannot be realized – even in the early Soviet Union. I think that the beautiful book of the French anthropologist Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State, fully confirms Weber’s view in this regard.

As Edith shows, at one point Weber flirted with the idea of a “fourth type of domination” (the democratic one), but then put it aside because in his opinion the legitimacy obtained through elections is purely “formal” when compared to charismatic domination. In a certain sense, Weber theoretically “delegitimizes” legitimacy through voting. Here we find ourselves, it must be admitted, not very far from Carl Schmitt’s concept of sovereignty.

Edith shows us that when Weber talks about Herrschaftsfreiheit, “lack of domination” or “absence of rule”, he is always thinking about, let’s say, limited social environments or situations – for example, fellowships and cooperatives. Or, as Weber himself writes in Economy and Society: democratic domination is a “typological limiting case”. This seems to relate to a tradition of German sociological thought according to which quantity means also quality. The dimensions of a group have substantive implications. What is “large” or “numerous” is not just an expansion of what is small – but has become something else. This common thought cuts across well-known conceptual distinctions, like society vs. community (F. Tönnies), church vs. sect (M. Weber, E. Troeltsch) or the small ideological political party at the one hand and the mass political party on the other (R. Michels). For the same morphological reasons, Herrschaftsfreiheit is almost impossible in modern mass societies. And Weber is the anti-anarchist par excellence.

I would also like to highlight that in Economy and Society Weber states that one of the central features of “democratic administration” is the fact that “the scope of power of command is kept at a minimum” (WG 608 / ES 948). Weber, it is clear, does not believe that this path is possible for us. There may be several other explanations for this, and one of them could be the following: since for Weber the essence of politics is the “domination of man by man”, the search for full emancipation of humanity in the future would also mean the disappearance of politics itself. The ultraliberal and the anarchist are just two sides of the same coin: both are representative of what Hermann Lübbe calls a “political theory of the liquidation of the political”.

Third Thesis: plebiscitary leadership democracy is not the only form of democracy

In fact, it has to be said that, for Weber, the alternatives were terrible: “leaderless” democracy or “street” democracy (a type that for him is perhaps the nec plus ultra of irrationality – and which I have been thinking about since the great wave of popular protests that erupted throught my country in 2013. In the long run, those protests produced not more democracy but rather a growing mobilization of anti-democratic sectors of Brazilian society). But I also think that Weber was obsessed with the problem of leadership. He seems deeply suspicious of the idea that politics could be something for the many – just as he thought of science!

Plebiscitary leadership democracy is nothing more than democracy with a charismatic leadership – simply put, a potentially authoritarian type of democracy. Although this concept remains extraordinarily useful, it also creates several difficulties for us. It is not just the fact that the concepts of “participation” and “rule of law” don’t mean much to Weber. The big problem, I believe, is that Weber remains silent about the ultimate meaning of politics. We should ask, in a German way: Politik wozu? What is politics for? One can say that for Weber politics must be oriented by national priorities – whatever that means. But what about the common good, individual freedoms, social peace, separation of powers and respect for the rules of the game? There are big and, in some cases, dangerous gaps in his vision of democracy.

I agree with the statement that “Weber rejects everything irrational, disordered, anarchist” – and yet: both in the case of parliamentary democracy, whose great quality would be to serve as a “school of leaders”, and in the case of plebiscitary democracy, Weber seems eager for the arrival of the one who will take the “rudder of history” – as he writes in 1895 – into his or her hands.

All that leads to an astonishing paradox. In Weber, rationalization advances in religious life, in the economy, in public and private administration, however democratic politics apparently needs to keep its ultimate irrational element, which is precisely the power of charisma. That is: politics, at its most authentic and powerful forms, needs to be kept safe from full rationalization. I fear that despite the sophistication of his typology of domination and the huge force of his political essays, the political thinker Max Weber remained, in essence, a man of the 19th century.

Fourth Thesis: Weber’s value-free concept of democracy

No doubt, what we see here is very different from his concept of nation. The 1917 words Edith quotes are impressive: “I don’t give a damn about the form of the state”, “Forms of the state are for me mere techniques, just like any other machinery”.

Our concept of democracy is more value-laden than Weber’s. But not only that. I believe that our concept is and must be richer than his. It is quite clear that the loss of legitimacy of democracy today is related to the fact that since the 1980s liberal democracies have “delivered” very little. Just a few years after the Second World War, Arnold Gehlen, an author who was far from an enthusiast of democracy, rightly observed that the legitimacy of the state in modern industrial societies depends largely on its ability to satisfy the “eudaemonism of the masses.” The cases of Eastern Europe, Brazil in 2018 (the election of far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency) and Argentina just recently (the election of Javier Milei to the presidency) show that it makes little difference to have a democracy able to defend itself only in an institutional way, when violence, unemployment and economic disorder spread endlessly. A democracy incapable of transforming part of its ideals into reality runs the risk of becoming just a concept, a concept with which important segments of our societies no longer feel existentially connected. Nowhere is the importance of values as great as here, but these values do not survive when they are reduced to words or – and this can be even more dangerous – when they undergo a process of excessive moralization. The liberal, tolerant, and less unequal society that we all want will not survive if its concept of democracy remains limited to a mere sociological taxonomy.