Worst Colleague Ever

by Corey Robin on November 13, 2020

In my New Yorker piece on Max Weber, which came out yesterday, I alluded to Weber’s many, often failed, forays into political life. Several folks on social media have expressed surprised about these expeditions. The facts of Weber’s political involvement don’t seem to fit with the aura of political detachment that surrounds his writing. Indeed, some of Weber’s writing can make him seem almost hermetically sealed off from the barest of political obligations, which is to communicate clearly.

But Weber was intensely involved in the political life of his day. In fact, I had an entire section of my piece devoted to these involvements, and was originally going to open the essay with that as a kind of set piece. For a variety of reasons, my editor and I decided to kill it.

But I thought I’d share it here.

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Max Weber, a scholar of hot temper and volcanic energy, longed to be a politician of cold focus and hard reason. Between the 1890s, when he launched his academic career, and his death from pneumonia in 1920, Weber made repeated incursions into the public sphere of Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany—to give advice, stand for office, form a party, negotiate a treaty, and write a constitution.

Most of these forays were failures. Officials didn’t listen; opportunities disappeared; proposals were rejected; amendments were ignored. Time and again, particularly after defeat, Weber would disavow any political ambition. But in the end, he couldn’t deny, as he confessed to a friend, that his “secret love” was for “the political.”

Why did Weber never manage the transition from pen to power? He was a riveting speaker, attracting legions of listeners from inside and outside the academy. He had good instincts and enviable judgment. His political antenna was so finely tuned, his map of the terrain so expertly drawn, he seemed to know, at every corner, which way to turn.

Despite a nervous breakdown in 1898, which drove him from the classroom for twenty years, and crippling bouts of depression that sent him to spas and sleeping pills, he rarely suffered from the thought that others might know better than he. “If one is lucky” in politics, he observed toward the end of his life, a “genius appears just once every few hundred years.” That left the door wide open for him.

Even in the delirium of his final days, Weber could be heard declaiming on behalf of the German people, jousting with their enemies in several of the many languages he knew. So appointed for politics did he seem that the philosopher Karl Jaspers, his close friend and most ardent fan, wondered whether Weber hadn’t “unconsciously” arranged his own derailment of destiny.

The truth is less exotic. Simply put, Weber was impossible to work with. His “intellectual superiority was a burden,” sighed his wife Marianne. His “ethical standards were inordinate.” Though offered as exoneration, as if Weber were too good for this world, the comment suggests how exasperating he could be. “The Germans,” Goethe said, “make everything difficult, both for themselves and for everyone else.” Weber made things very, very difficult.

Every move, every maneuver, had to be just so. After agreeing, during World War I, to speak publicly on behalf of a propaganda outfit for the war, Weber complained that he had been instructed not “to be too precise” in his formulations. “That is not my way.” What was his way? “Taking things to an extreme; I cannot do otherwise.”

For a man so clear-eyed about the larger questions of power, both its shifting balances and long-term tendencies, Weber could be myopically exacting about the minutia of a moment. “A politician must make compromises,” he announced after withdrawing from yet another party to which he had been briefly attached; “a scholar cannot justify this.” But that was just a fancy way of saying nobody did anything right—which in politics, as in families, may be the wrongest position of all.

Weber’s refusal of compromise put him into frequent, often needless, conflict with comrades and colleagues. “He bubbles over,” one scholar remarked, “but he bubbles over for too long; first he should bubble, then he should flow.” Weber never flowed. Even Marianne acknowledged that his “constant criticism of the political conduct of his own group was disquieting.”

Far from making him look principled, his intransigence made him seem unsteady, even explosive. Weber could blow up anything. Anticipating his arrival at what was slated to be a tense meeting of the faculty, a historian commented to the art historian sitting next to him, “The most excitable man in the world is about to storm in.” As it happens, Weber was the picture of calm at that meeting, delivering what the art historian would call a “Hellenic” performance.

But there’s a reason, beyond mental illness, that he was thought of as unstable and inconstant. A supernova of energy, Weber lacked the critical element that distinguishes the dilettante from the professional: staying power. Every burst of light left behind a black hole.

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If you missed the New Yorker piece, you can check it out here.