Max Weber

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[MWS 7.2 (2008) 185-211] ISSN 1470-8078

Charisma and Responsibility: Max Weber, Kurt Eisner, and the Bavarian Revolution of 1918 Nicholas S. Hopkins

Abstract Weber followed revolutionary change in postwar Germany closely, using his categories of charisma and responsibility to interpret developments. His views were especially affected by his attitude toward the leader of that revolution in Munich, the socialist Kurt Eisner. The history of Eisner’s role in the revolution from October 1918 through his assassination in February 1919 illuminates Weber’s theory of charisma and the role of the demagogue. Weber identified Eisner as a possible charismatic leader, and at the same time deplored his actions. The second part of the article examines two seminal texts of Weber from this postwar period. Contextualizing Weber’s work enriches it and suggests a new understanding of the role of charisma in social change. Analysing Eisner’s role in Weber’s terms leads to a reinterpretation of that historical period, and also contains insights for other periods. Keywords: charisma, demagogue, responsibility, revolution, truth, types of authority, war guilt.

Argument and background Two key terms in Max Weber’s work are ‘charisma’ and ‘responsibility’. These terms took on added meaning in Weber’s writings during the political and social turmoil of the First World War and its aftermath, a period known as the German Revolution. They continue to resonate in the present. Weber was able to test the usefulness of his notion of charisma (when people accept a leader because they attribute extraordinary qualities to him) against the collapse of the authoritarian German state at the end of the war, and especially to help account for the rise of new social and political movements in the period immediately following the end of the war in November 1918. The somewhat opposed concept of responsibility evokes the traits Weber believed ought to characterize a serious politician, who should carefully evaluate the consequences of his action, and act accordingly. © Max Weber Studies 2008, Department of Applied Social Sciences, London Metropolitan University, Old Castle Street, London E1 7NT, UK.

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Max Weber Studies

This is reflected in two texts in particular: ‘Economy and Society’, especially the postwar sections (Weber 1978: 1-307), and the well-known essay, ‘Politics as a Vocation’ (Weber 1958). Both were drafted between 1918 and 1920. Close commentators on these texts have already noted that Weber responded to his times. The editor of the English version of ‘Economy and Society’, Guenther Roth, has noted (1978: ciii) with regard to the postwar text, ‘The many pages of seemingly dry definitions and comments owe some of their length—and hidden fervor—to Weber’s political involvement with the problems of postwar economic collapse and in the face of the victor’s harsh demands at Versailles’. Wolfgang Mommsen wrote (1989: 8) of Weber’s key text on ‘Politics as a Vocation’ that it ‘arose from a particular historical situation and … is unmistakably directed against the pacifist tendencies of the time’. This paper examines the linkage between Weber’s texts and the history and sociology of Germany during this period. Weber reacted strongly to the German revolution of 1918–19 and notably the events in Munich where he spent much of this period. Ever since the Russian revolution of 1905 he had showed a fascination with the social change implications of revolution, and the collapse of Germany in 1918 dropped him into the midst of a similar situation. An analysis of Weber’s position and views reveals three interlocking sets of relationships: between Weber and the unfolding events, between Weber and the leader of postwar Bavaria (Kurt Eisner) as indirect political rivals, and the applicability of Weber’s concept of ‘charisma’ to Eisner in the context of the Bavarian revolution. Two protagonists: Max Weber and Kurt Eisner The key figure in revolutionary...
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