Max Weber – Foundations of an intellectual Biography
On the 11th of August 1876, a police officer calls at the Weber family home in Charlottenburg. The 12-year-old Max needs to be immunized against smallpox. Immunizations are mandatory and subject to police checks. With their parents at a summer resort, the two oldest children, Max and Alfred, have travelled back to Berlin alone from Heidelberg for the start of the school year. Max is responsible for the household and service staff. If the money runs out, he has to find a workaround. Max Weber grows up upper class and protestant; the highest educational achievements are expected. “Responsibility” remains a core concept in his thinking and ethical behaviour, and also affects his politics. Max experiences politics and its scientific study at home, where his father meets with friends who are party leaders and professors. They are part of the elite of the German nation, which in 1870 unified into the German Reich, whose economy is booming.
QUESTIONS OF POWER
Studying law in Heidelberg, , Göttingen, and Berlin influences Weber’s consistent concern with modern culture and with “why things developed in this fashion and not in a different way” (MWG I/7: 174). Based on rural land distribution in Roman antiquity and in the East areas of Imperial Germany, he analyses economic, social, and ruling structures. How do landlords treat industrial and land workers? What influence does religion have? The “’ question” – according to Weber in 1892 – should be viewed from the perspective of all actors involved – the landowner and the state, but also from the workers’ perspective. Who has which rights, and how much power? Without rules and legal security, there is no modern capitalism, no modern state, no functioning civil society. But he also already claimed that these would not exist without particular “ethical-ideal drivers”. Weber claimed that “the powerful and entirely psychological magic of “Freedom”” lay behind the phenomena of mass migration to cities and increased self-assurance and combativeness of rural workers (MWG I/3: 920), two matters of concern of the Reich’s elites.
At 30, Weber is Professor of National Economy in Freiburg, a successful career from someone who in reality had been trained as a lawyer. He jokes that when he he is hearing someone lecturing in economics for the first time. But he takes on too much. His nerves cannot handle it anymore. After the winter term 1898/9, he can no longer undertake his academic activities, so he leaves his position. From 1903 he is a private scholar. His social and political engagement, which influenced his life in the 1890s, also ends. Weber declares that enduring one’s own fate, but also the “fate of our time” without excuses (“like a man”), is a great task. The sign of our times is the rationalisation of all spheres of life, which are in conflict with each other: science, economy, politics, religion, art, and eroticism. The powers of fate stand against rational order. There is no comfort zone.
“Because being unable to look into the grave face of the destiny of one’s times is a weaknessWeber 1917, MWG I/ 101).
As a private scholar supported financially by the inheritance of his wife Marianne, a women’s rights advocate whom he married in 1893, Weber is free. He can work on topics that interest him: the relationship between the protestant ethic and modern capitalism, introducing methodological reflections on value freedom into the new field of sociology, doing conceptual work. Weber enjoys freedom to think and to act. To prevent bureaucracy from controlling everything, he argues, freedom must be continuously fought for: at universities, in parliaments. Now as then we are stuck in dynamic processes that constrain us. The “casing” is institutional and mental. Weber’s hope lies with strong citizens and charismatic individuals. Even during the first world war, he looks sceptically on mass movements; he advocates for Germany but also reminds the All-Germans that there can be no lasting peace as long as Germany denies national freedom to its Slavic neighbours.
In the finale of the Protestant Ethic in 1905, as he formulates one of his encapsulated sentences, Weber places an explosive device that will detonate in the future – in our present. He writes that we are all born into “the contemporary economic order, a monstrous cosmos” tied to the technical and economic conditions of mechanic-machine production: modern capitalism. According to Weber’s prognosis, it will determine our entire lives “with overwhelming force […] until the last drop of fossil fuels burned up.” Modern capitalism is tied to its natural resources. If they are exhausted, the whole social and economic order, our lifestyle, must collapse. Will this come to happen? Or has capitalism become a learning, flexible, unbreakable structure?
Max Weber became a “classic” only after his death, primarily due to the first edition of his writings by his wife Marianne Weber (7 volumes, 1920-1924), and then through the new post-war editions by Johannes Winckelmann, and finally through the historical-critical Max Weber (47 volumes, 1984-2020).
The USA was highly influential for the global reception of Weber, particularly the translations by Frank H. Knight (General Economic History, 1927), Talcott Parsons (The Protestant Ethic, 1930), Hans H. Gerth/C. Wright Mills (From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, 1948), Henry A. Finch/ Edward A. Shils (The Methodology of Social Sciences) and Guenther Roth/Claus Wittich (Economy and Society, 1968). Max Weber was portrayed as a sociologist and theorist of modernisation. During the time of the Cold War, he was considered an intellectual counterweight to the theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
The prevalence of the US-centred reception overshadowed many years of intensive Weber translation work in Japan, India, Korea, Mexico, Argentina, and many other countries of the world. Even before the American reception and European “rediscovery” of the work, the 1944 publication of a translation of Economy and Society in Mexico sparked a debate around Weber in Latin America that has lasted until the present day. Weber became and continues to be meaningful in the deciphering of radical socio-economic processes of upheaval; today, particularly in China, Turkey, and Brazil. The Weber Scholars Network (formerly the Young Weber Scholars, but still an initiative focused on junior researchers) aims to be a collective meeting point for all strands of the international and interdisciplinary Weber debate in the hopes of writing a new chapter of his global reception.