Commentary Magazine

Max Weber by John Patrick Diggins


Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy
by John Patrick Diggins
Basic Books. 334 pp. $28.00

John Patrick Diggins is a congenital dissenter. In his youth in San Francisco during the 1950’s, he was scolded by a juvenile-court judge for drinking and playing pool, and for a “lack of respect for authority.” As an adult, he recalls in the preface to his 1992 book, The Rise and Fall of the American Left, he was labeled a “troublemaker” for showing up uninvited at a conference of radical historians.

Not unexpectedly, it is the adult Diggins who has been on display in recent decades, and the objects of his rebellion are no longer the censorious attitudes of the 5 O’s but the “progressive” blindnesses of our own self-absorbed age. The Diggins who teaches American history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and is the author of books on pragmatism, American political thought since the Founding, and American society in the 1940’s and 50’s, is an old-fashioned liberal ironist, convinced that it is humanity’s inescapable calling to struggle valiantly for die achievement of goods that can never be achieved—or which, if achieved, tend to turn sour or even into their polar opposites.

Diggins’s intellectual heroes include the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr, Herman Melville, Abraham Lincoln, die authors of The Federalist, and the New England Puritans—figures who faced up to the unresolvable tensions in die human condition, and die inherent limitations of human nature. His list tends not to include Progressives, pragmatists, and other illuminati from Thomas Jefferson to Woodrow Wilson to John Dewey, with their boundless and (to Diggins) pernicious faith in die triumph of reason and die perfectibility of man.

Nor does Diggins’s maverick streak end there. While much of die scholarly world has happily embraced poststructuralism, multiculturalism, and identity politics, he has rebelled against political correctness and vigorously defended traditional methods and subjects. He has also maintained an astonishing level of scholarly productivity, at the rate of a major book every two or three years over the past decade. With the present work, he bursts the bounds of the American subject matter that has been his bailiwick in the past and ventures boldly into foreign territory to tackle the life and thought of Max Weber (1864-1920), one of the indisputable “fathers” of modern sociology and a preeminent figure in the intellectual life of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Weber’s interests as a sociologist were incredibly varied, ranging from rural agricultural labor to the social psychology of bureaucracy to Chinese religion to German politics. His justly famous lectures, “Science as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation,” remain as fresh today as when they were delivered at Heidelberg late in his career. But Dig-gins believes that Weber is relatively underappreciated by Americans, who have generally gotten their Weber second-hand and shown very little interest in the man himself.

This claim is overstated—certainly there is no lack of homage paid to Weberian ideas in today’s academic world, and there is evidence at every turn of his enduring influence. It is with his name that we associate our awareness of the power and importance of religious ideas as agents of social formation and historical change; of the ambivalent effects of instrumental rationality, which leads to “the disenchantment of the world” in all its hollowness and fruitlessness; of the alternation between the dangers of “charisma” and the dehumanizing drudgery of “routine” in social and political life; of the irreconcilable tension between conscience and responsibility in political life; and of the ascetic commitment to truth that separates scholarship from politics.

Yet Diggins is right to assert that Americans generally do not know Weber himself, and the absence of biographical context does render his writings strangely detached and remote, as if they were impersonal dicta that had dropped from the sky. And so it is not surprising after all that an American historian who elsewhere has stressed the significance of Calvinism in the moral and economic formation of American society should eventually have been drawn to the German author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.



A dark, brooding figure, whose relentlessly probing sensibility drove him to uncover the mechanisms of power and domination that lie beneath what Edmund Burke called “the decent drapery of life,” Weber, just like the Puritan saints of whom he wrote so eloquently, was a haunted man; his sober and sanguine external pose, unfailingly conveyed in photographic portraits, concealed the passions and ambitions that seethed beneath. As he emerges from Diggins’s narrative, Weber was a man who craved the unvarnished and disillusioning truth with the ravenous appetite and intensity of a religious seeker—yet the truths he found never brought him any satisfaction or consolation, only deeper anxiety.

Diggins reminds us that at a pivotal moment in 1897, just after his brilliant, fast-track academic success had taken him triumphantly into a professorship at the University of Heidelberg, Weber was cut down by a profound mental collapse that lasted for nearly seven years. Like William James and John Stuart Mill before him, Weber had to endure an extended season in hell before moving on to his greatest achievements. Although the specific causes of his depression are obscure, it clearly left lasting effects, chastening and tempering his youthful outlook and tingeing it with the somber hues of tragedy.

Diggins clearly views Weber as a hero—another rebel and dissenter, a flouter of academic categories. But he does not neglect his subject’s all-too-human foibles and indecisions, even down to his inability on his deathbed to choose between his wife Marianne and his lover Else Jaffé (an episode which to my Calvinistic mind Diggins treats much too sympathetically). But the main purpose of this book is not just to introduce Americans to the complexity of Weber’s inner life but to promote an encounter that will widen and deepen our own national self-understanding.



This “Americanist” spin is evident from the book’s very beginning, which offers a somewhat asymmetrical comparison between the journeys to America of Max Weber in 1904 and Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831. An even more implausible juxtaposition—between Lincoln’s Lyceum Address (1838) and Weber’s Inaugural Address at the University of Freiburg (1895)—marks the book’s conclusion. Lincoln’s Address was the work of an obscure young country lawyer, not yet thirty years old, only recently arrived in the provincial capital of Springfield, Illinois, from the even more provincial New Salem. Weber’s was the work of a mature and renowned scholar taking up a chair in political economy at a world-famous university. What could they have in common?

But by the time Diggins has finished, one sees that both men addressed themselves to very similar issues: the burdens of political responsibility and political education; the difficulties entailed in the perpetuation of healthy political institutions, and in cultivating the citizenship such institutions require; the tragic dimensions attendant upon the exercise of power; the importance of affect in political life; and the tendency of revolutionary charisma (respectively, the “Spirit of 76” and the “political greatness” of Bismarck) to ossify into administrative routine.

So if it is a bit of a stretch to compare a self-educated American frontier politician with an immensely well-educated, urbane German scholar, it is a stretch worth making—and not only for Lincoln’s sake. An exclusively German or European context for Weber, Diggins argues, “diminishes the profound universality of his own concerns and categories of analysis,” and cuts Americans off from certain insights into themselves that they might otherwise grasp. In particular, Diggins believes that a proper appreciation of Weber can help loosen the death grip of our country’s all-smothering “progressive” intellectual tradition, and help to remind us that we have another past to draw on, exemplified notably by the Calvinistic strain.



But there are also some inevitable problems arising out of this “Americanist” agenda. In order to create a common ground of comparison, Diggins has to fudge some matters and overstate others. In the first category is his too-neat treatment of Tocqueville as a Weberian opposite-number, which distorts the Frenchman’s work by tasking him with a belief in “American exceptionalism” he patently did not possess (else, why would he have come to America in order to witness the European future?). A more serious error is to attribute to Tocqueville a concern only with the excesses of individualism. Diggins contrasts this with Weber’s observation that atomized individuals tend to turn to an enlarged government to demand its services; but this is precisely one of Tocqueville’s own cardinal contentions—i.e., that social democracy and individualism beget centralization.

Diggins also sometimes overstates his case. It simply is not true that in 1904, when Weber visited the United States, “the Protestant work ethic had all but gone to ashes”; it is not even true today. Nor was it true that American social scientists saw Protestantism as nothing more than superstition or “false consciousness.” On the latter point, in fact, it is useful to contrast the highly secularized tenor of German social science in Weber’s day with the evangelical, almost missionary, tone of American social scientists like Albion Small, who regarded their discipline as the continuation of liberal Protestantism by other means. By the same token, it is also wrong to make “Protestantism” synonymous with “Calvinism,” for American Protestantism is simply too diverse for that. Indeed, a certain brand of Protestantism, and a very American brand at that, undergirds the very same “progressive” pieties Diggins deplores.

But these are small complaints, insignificant next to the magnitude of Diggins’s achievement. For many readers, this book will probably be too dense, idiosyncratic, and difficult. But for those who make the effort, the reward will be to be drawn back to Weber himself; if it accomplishes that end, Max Weber will have performed a valuable service, and perhaps even provided a source of salutary troublemaking.

About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, contributed “Is Conservatism Finished?” to the January COMMENTARY. His latest book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past.

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