Max Weber: A Biography 
by Joachim Radkau, translated by Patrick Camiller.
Polity, 683 pp., £25, January 2009, 978 0 7456 4147 8
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More than most, Max Weber’s reputation reflects the aspirations of others. His wife, Marianne, did much to establish it in Germany, rapidly turning his articles and drafts into books and writing a biography. Liberal émigrés were what one of his American editors, Günther Roth, describes as its shock troops in the English-speaking world. Marianne’s biography appeared in German in 1926, in English in 1975, and has been regarded as the most authoritative. Joachim Radkau’s was first published in German in 2005, at much greater length than in the new English edition. ‘There is no longer any reason for silence,’ he writes: all those who knew Weber are dead. ‘The truth . . . has a certain quality of release’; but it does nothing, he believes, to destroy ‘the magic of the great anti-magician.’

Marianne’s life received nearly 60 reviews, which is a large number for what Radkau describes as the literary stylisation of a marriage. She had a reputation of her own as an able historian and activist in the German women’s movement, and, writing amid the bewilderment of Weimar, portrayed Weber as a prematurely lost hero. Radkau is a historian of the epidemic of nervous disturbance in the Second Reich. Drawing on correspondence that Marianne declined to use, didn’t have access to or even know about, and on recent studies, he is more easily intimate than she was, and more disordered. In the manner of much biography now, he writes about Weber’s character, illness and relations with others more than about the work, which he tends to regard as little more than an expression of how Weber was feeling: about his mother, Helene; about Marianne herself, with whom Weber appears not to have had any sexual connection and who confided her difficulties and disappointments to Helene; about his brother Alfred, ‘MiniMax’ as students called him, who, like both Max and Marianne, was in love with Else Jaffé; about Mina Tobler, Max’s other lover, who after his death tried to seduce Alfred; and about Else herself, who when she was coming closer to Max was still married to the economist Edgar Jaffé, but was already with Alfred and had recently had an affair and a child with the psychoanalyst Otto Gross, who briefly upset her by starting a relationship with her sister Frieda. (Frieda’s next husband but one was D.H. Lawrence.) Marianne and Else were at Weber’s bedside together when he died, aged 56, in 1920. Marianne died in Else’s arms at 84 in 1954. Mina died in her arms at 87 in 1967. Else herself lived to 99 and died in 1973, in the same home in Heidelberg as the other two. The impression Radkau gives is that in their different ways, each of the women understood Weber better than he did himself.

Yet he certainly knew that he didn’t know what to do with his desires; he said as much in a conventionally pompous and unfeeling note proposing marriage to Marianne, who was a second cousin and had been living in the Weber household. He will have been aware that he was intolerant and bad tempered. And he was a pessimist. ‘As far as the dream of peace and human happiness is concerned,’ he said in 1895 in a politically charged lecture at Freiburg, ‘the words written over the portal to the unknown future of human history’ are Dante’s lasciate ogni speranza. The lecture formally inaugurated a professorship in political economy that Weber had secured through research that he’d done for what we would now call an influential think tank, the Verein für Sozialpolitik, on the effects of the agricultural depression in Prussia. But he was young, just 31, and did have a programme. ‘The question that stirs us . . . is not the well-being human beings will enjoy in the future,’ the question of the new marginalist economics and the government’s social policy, ‘but what kind of people they will be,’ the question of politics and a national economy. ‘Our successors will hold us answerable to history . . . for the amount of elbow-room in the world which we conquer and bequeath to them.’ Germany should expand. In saying so, and scorning what he called the ‘petty manoeuvrings of political epigones’ in Berlin, he was pleased to see, he wrote to Alfred, that he had ‘aroused general consternation’. In fact, he had misjudged the mood. The German foreign ministry had no interest in expansion, and in 1898, Bernhard von Bülow, the foreign minister, remarked that ‘the masses are clerical, social-democratic or particularist, not nationally minded.’ Weber soon decided that he could not achieve anything politically; in another biography his nephew wrote that he ‘withdrew from the arena with his hopes dashed’ and sank into a ‘state of despair and wrathfulness’. It was early evidence of what Radkau, too, sees as a recurring truth. He had little talent for practical politics. He spoke well – though could not, he conceded, be brief – and could laugh, but he was impatient with other people and the open-endedness of events; he was also insufficiently determined and thick-skinned. His vocation was thought.

He soon had trouble with that too. In 1897, he and Marianne moved to Heidelberg, where he’d accepted a post. But he sank into neurasthenia and six years later, after prolonged leave, resigned; he did not return to teaching until 1918. Radkau is right to say that when Weber did think, his creativity came to be ‘rooted not least in an ever more developed capacity to make his own experience of life a key to the world’. His immediate experience led him to start with subjects that tormented him, and he was unsurprisingly unoriginal. He embarked on an essay on the presuppositions of the historical school in political economy, a subject that, notwithstanding his new professorship, he might have known he wouldn’t find easy; it became known as the ‘essay of sighs’. The sighs continued as he succumbed further to what he called the ‘methodological pestilence’ of the human sciences, the tangles that arise from asking questions that matter to us about people who think and act in ways that matter to them while trying to be ‘objective’, even ‘scientific’, and to generalise. It was travelling, particularly two long stays in Rome in 1902 and 1903, that rescued him. Rome revived a youthful curiosity about religion, and what Marianne described as an informal ‘religious-philosophical Kaffeeklatsch’ in Heidelberg gave him confidence. ‘Max is taking care of “Protestant asceticism”,’ she wrote of the evening he gave his first paper to the group early in 1905. ‘I am in charge of “ham in burgundy”.’

Marianne was already on the way to her third and most important book, about wives and mothers in legal history. Weber’s first, had he accepted invitations to publish it in that form, would have come out of a two-part piece about ‘the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism’ he wrote in 1904 and 1905 for the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, a journal which he, Edgar Jaffé and Werner Sombart had just begun to edit. Radkau disputes what others have persuasively suggested: that the piece had started as a review of the first edition of Sombart’s Modern Capitalism, which had appeared in 1902. Sombart argued that the modern economy had its origins in opportunities for trade in medieval Europe. Weber observed that there were signs of capitalism even in antiquity. But his own first interest was in the psychological impulse in the much later organisation of free labour to produce profits for investment rather than consumption. This, he claimed, came from Puritanism, above all from Calvinist anxieties about predestination; Calvinists (like his mother) needed to persuade themselves that salvation lay in doing God’s work in this life.

Radkau and others suggest that Weber would also have been affected by William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, which also appeared in 1902, not least by James’s suggestion that ‘the real core of the religious problem’ lies in a cry for help. The two men met in Boston in 1904, in the course of what for Weber was an invigorating visit to the United States, and they would have talked about the personal consequences of the Protestantisms that preoccupied them. But James, unlike Weber, was disposed to melancholy, and in a footnote to a later edition, Weber criticised him for underrating the substance of religious thought.

Weber conceded that the piece was a sketch, and insisted that he had ‘no intention whatsoever of maintaining such a foolish and doctrinaire thesis that the spirit of capitalism could only have arisen as a result of certain effects of the Reformation, or even that capitalism as an economic system is a creation of the Reformation.’ What mattered to him was its consequence. ‘The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so.’ It can indeed seem that he made his own experience the key to the world.

In time, that experience became more satisfying. His health improved, he had the energy and the leisure, free of professorial duties, to read, and he and Marianne inherited a large sum of money. They moved into Helene Weber’s childhood home, a villa looking over the Neckar where in the summer Weber could sunbathe naked with a pipe on the terrace at noon and young people were welcomed for tea. ‘The ‘Myth of Heidelberg’ was coming to be seen as an opinionated, interesting and prodigiously informed talker. He was now ‘gripped’, Marianne recalled, ‘by a desire for universal history – an urge to grasp and present as much as possible of all significant happenings in the world’. He naturally enjoyed the fame, and an audience. Marianne too was happier. She was now a figure in the women’s movement (it was said that young women who came to the house referred to Max as ‘Marianne Weber’s husband’) and there was a lot of talk about relations between the sexes. But unlike his wife, Weber, though active in professional associations, was still finding it difficult to write. ‘Incapable of lecturing or of publishing major works, he sought a new role as independent adviser, stimulator and organiser,’ and made the mistake of accepting an invitation from the publisher Paul Siebeck to produce a new handbook of political economy. One by one, the 45 contributors deserted, and he was left to work the ‘goddamn treadmill’ himself. It became his Grundriss der Sozialökonomik. His drafts, which Marianne sorted after his death, also deal extensively with law and religion, and it was to projects on ancient Judaism and the religions of Asia that Weber was to devote a large part of his reviving energies up to the end of the war.

His intention was to show that other religions could not have produced the effects that a Puritanical Christianity had produced in Europe. But the drafts also betray Weber’s growing conviction that people’s religion is fundamental to their character and what they can make of themselves. He worked hardest on Judaism, in which he romanticised the ‘war prophecy’ of the ‘good old times’ and noted that the later prophets, with their restless ecstasies and doom-laden predictions of exile, had undermined the rationality that their attacks on magic had promised: ‘Nowhere do we find the tranquil, blissful euphoria of the god-possessed.’ He had in mind the magical-orgiastic rituals of tantrism in Hinduism and Buddhism, which he thought had produced a more enduringly ‘meaningful relation to the world’. Scholars of ancient Indian religion criticise him for his emphasis on sex. Radkau reads him against the backdrop of his own erotic life. In 1909, Weber had realised that he was in love (as much of Heidelberg had been) with Else Jaffé, his aristocratic, intelligent and desirable doctoral student of years before. Marianne, torn between her own feelings for Else, a sharpened disappointment with her marriage, and her commitment to independence and expressiveness in women, was in some agony. Max was soon not pleased either, for in 1910 Else was to prefer the more open and sexually abandoned Alfred (they stayed together for the next 40 years). She and Max were not to connect again until she came to a lecture of his on Judaism in 1917 and allowed a brief affair (it started in a railway tunnel) two years later. In 1912, he turned to Mina Tobler, a pianist, younger and no less perceptive, who had delighted him by reading the argument on the Protestant ethic as if it were a novel, took him to Bayreuth and elsewhere, and adored him for the rest of his life. Greatly taken among other things with the boots and gaiters he wore as a medical director in the reserve at the start of the war, she offered a sensuality that he would not otherwise have enjoyed.

Changes in the army’s medical service brought Weber’s hospital post to an end, and he failed to secure another government office. But his work on the religions of India and China was not the simple turning away from the world that Radkau describes. Weber had maintained his interest in politics, and at the end of the war he tried half-heartedly to enter them. Provoked by the Revolution in 1905, he had learned Russian, read the Russian newspapers, talked to a well-informed cadet who’d escaped to Heidelberg, and in an essay of 1906 pursued the general line of argument that he’d broached in his inaugural lecture: in Russia, even more than in Germany, danger lay in the absence of a middle class that had the opportunity and the will to assert itself against both the old order and the threat of revolution. He pressed the argument again in articles on Germany in 1916 and 1917, including a short polemic in the magazine Die Frau, now adding that no salvation would be possible unless the country was able to reassert itself as a Machtstaat, a state of might as well as right. In a note to his colleagues in the German peace delegation to Versailles in 1919, he went so far as to insist that it should be an ‘absolute precondition’ that all private property be restored, the country’s ‘crucial colonies’ returned, and that the proposed restriction to an army of 100,000 should be rejected. At home, he called on students to take up arms if it were to be suggested that German territories in the east should be ceded. But the delegation ignored the note and audiences at home were tired of nationalist talk. Even the students were silent. He warned that if the peace talks were to break down the consequence would be ‘a chauvinism . . . in Germany such as there has never been before’. Rather oddly, given its commitment to a socialised economy, he joined the Heidelberg chapter of the Council of Workers and Soldiers in November 1918. But its organisation irritated him, and he let himself be drawn instead into Alfred’s new German Democratic Party. This was an attempt to connect more moderate socialists with the National Liberals (their father’s party, which in the 1890s Max had despised) on a platform of national unity. But he disdained what he needed to do to become a candidate, and was not selected. He had meanwhile accepted a professorship in Vienna, a city he liked, and soon moved to another in Munich, which Marianne preferred, in 1919.

Many have taken Weber’s picture of the world as a counsel of despair. The universal triumph of a practical reason of means over ends has undermined the religiously driven asceticism that inspired it; it is impossible now to imagine the Berufsmensch, the man of vocation, who first embodied it. We are terminally disenchanted. One might be willing to acccept the mundane consequentialism he despised: there may be no transcendental justification for how we should act, but there are variable quantities of wellbeing in society, and we can occupy ourselves in engineering more of it. Or one might rejoice in radical subjectivities: if there are no longer any foundations for our beliefs, we are free to invent. But there are those who believe that Weber had a richer and more distinct response. He alluded to it in lectures that he gave in 1917 and 1919 on science and politics as vocations and mere professions and more crisply at the end of his short piece in Die Frau. In all spheres of life, he said, we need something or someone to give us a purpose. Yet

that sober old empiricist, John Stuart Mill, once said that simply on the basis of experience, no one would ever arrive at the existence of one god – and, it seems to me, certainly not a god of goodness – but at polytheism. Indeed anyone living in the ‘world’ (in the Christian sense of the word) can only feel himself subject to the struggle between multiple sets of values, each of which, viewed separately, seems to impose an obligation on him. He has to choose which of these gods he will and should serve, or when he should serve the one and when the other. But at all times he will see himself engaged in a fight against one or other of the gods of this world, and above all he will always find that he is far from the God of Christianity – or at least the God proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount.

With this last thought he was arguing in the middle of the war against what he saw as the misplaced goodness of pacifist women. One can see in this something close to his admiring young friend Karl Jaspers’s existential leap of faith. It certainly recalls Jaspers’s aspiration to an authentic inner life arrived at through acts of decisive freedom grounded in feeling and experience as well as reason, an aspiration that was to make the local neo-Kantians so cross. The more systematically-minded detect an emerging theory of re-enchantment. Radkau, who shows less interest in the analytical issues, wonders whether Weber was becoming a mystic. It is not easy and perhaps not sensible, on this matter at least, to try to make him more exact. He was a generalist who proceeded by degrees of rage, romance and intuition more than analysis, and not always with enough evidence. Perhaps the best one can say is that in politics, he wanted the middle and working classes to fight through parliaments for day to day liberties, a visionary leader with powers in his person as well as a constitution to show what could be made of those, a free economy to support them, and a strong state to impose order, repel invaders and, if need be, expand. In fact, he rather admired the Britain of Gladstone and Lloyd George.

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