28th Sep 2023


What is needed now: real leaders

On January 28, 1919, German sociologist and economist Max Weber held a lecture for university students in Munich.

Today, with Americans storming the Capitol and Europeans at each other's throats because of a vaccine, this lecture proves to be rather topical again.

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We're talking about part 2 of the so-called Vocation Lectures, Politics as a Vocation, in which Weber tackles the essence of politics.

While Weber spoke, the revolution raged outside the auditorium. World War I had ended with the defeat of Germany and Austria a few months earlier.

Kurt Eisner, a former philosophy student and a journalist, had declared Bavaria a socialist republic. Weber considered Eisner a hothead and a "literary dilettante" who had nothing to offer except shrill slogans - the last thing the country needed after four years of war, in his view.

Weber hadn't been too keen to hold a second lecture (the first was called Science as a Vocation), but he relented when the students told him they would invite Eisner instead.

The students probably hoped Weber would discuss the political turmoil outside. But he hardly mentioned it at all, refusing to take a stance. He ask them to zoom out instead.

In order to understand what's happening outside, Weber told his audience, one shouldn't focus on details but on abstract, philosophical matters instead - such as the meaning of politics and the question why those who are governed accept claims to authority by those who govern.

More than a century has passed, and again there is no shortage of hot-headedness and shrill slogans.

An American president who refuses to accept he lost the elections, asks his supporters to storm the Capitol – the country's symbol of liberal democracy. Many of these supporters believe, like him, in conspiracy theories.

Millions of Europeans were watching it on TV last week, flabbergasted. Had America gone mad?

Well, no - in Europe we find similar madness. As former European president Donald Tusk tweeted: "There are Trumps everywhere, so each and everyone should defend their Capitol."

Europe's 'Capitols'

Last August, German activists almost stormed the Reichstag building to protest the government's corona measures.

In the Netherlands, farmers angry at the government's policies to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions rammed the doors of local government buildings with tractors.

All over Europe politicians, civil servants and journalists are insulted and threatened on a daily basis. Far too many Europeans, too, cling to conspiracy theories.

Nowadays, the entire political debate seems to be focused on just one issue: Covid-19 vaccination. In almost every country, governments and health care officials are heavily criticised for delays, mistakes and misunderstandings.

Opposition politicians who called corona 'just a flu' recently, are now demanding the resignation of ministers because of delays in the rollout of the vaccination programme.

People who have never thought twice about taking a tetanus jab now see the corona vaccine as a manipulation of the deep state.

This vaccine is turned into a political weapon, loaded with bullets of fear.

For Max Weber this would have been the perfect case study. He would certainly have understood the complexity of the vaccination effort in Europe, which requires scientific consensus, well-functioning bureaucracies and impeccable logistics – and not just on a national level but, in today's Europe, at various levels of government.

In our developed societies, Weber said in Munich, "politics is made with the head, not with the other parts of the body, nor the soul. The most effective politician is the one who can excite the emotions of the people who follow, while governing strictly with a cold hard reason – the head."

But in a climate of fear, citizens are hardly susceptible to rational considerations. So in order to relate to them a politician must use his emotional skills, meanwhile holding on to his convictions and taking the clear-headed, tough decisions that his responsibility calls for.

For most normal humans such a task is impossible, Weber said, because they are vain.

Vanity becomes problematic for politicians, he pointed out, when they control the tools of legitimate violence. The danger is that once they become too emotionally attached to their followers and to the smell of prolonged power, they abandon the rational reasoning needed to govern in a just and effective manner.

The result can be, as we saw in Washington last week, abuse of the state's monopoly on violence.

What is at stake, both in the US and in Europe, is the survival of representative democracy. In these situations only charismatic leaders who can be rational and emotional at the same time will succeed.

"Politics is a slow and difficult drilling of holes into hard boards, done with both passion and clear-sightedness," Weber told the students.

"To do so, one must be a leader – not only that, a hero, in a very literal sense of the word." He advised all those who are neither leader nor hero to try nevertheless and "be steadfast and fearless, undaunted by the failures of all their hopes".

At the very end of his lecture Max Weber predicted long, reactionary years ahead – like a "polar night of harsh and icy darkness, whichever group superficially wins for now".

He was right, unfortunately.

Weber's lectures deserve to be (re)read today. We should take his message at heart and make sure that this time, we end up in a better place.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This article has been adapted from one of her columns in NRC.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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