Commentary Magazine

The Puritan Insight

To the editor:

I never expected to find Hitlerian thoughts revived by an associate editor of COMMENTARY, yet Anatole Shub in reviewing C. V. Wedgwood’s history of the Puritan Rebellion (June) says: “. . . a Puritan . . . would have sensed connections between the cultural chaos, economic hysteria, religious hysteria and sexual disarray of Weimar Germany and the political nihilism which followed.” This assumes, as Hitler did, cultural chaos and the rest in the German Weimar Republic. The assumption is partly erroneous, partly unintelligible.

The “cultural chaos” of Weimar Germany is refuted by such cultural “chaotics” as Hindemith, Thomas Mann, Kandinsky, and Gropius. There was no economic “hysteria,” whatever that means, in Germany in 1930, but genuine economic catastrophe. Conditions gradually improved from 1930 to 1933, and there was therefore no economic justification for Hindenburg’s egregious mistake in appointing Hitler chancellor in 1933. If “religious hysteria” refers to emotional religion, then it is clear that Weimar Germany never had anything even approaching the irresponsible evangelism (of all shades) prevalent in this country. If it means anti-Semitism, then it is equally clear that Weimar Germany had no more of it than most other countries, and that violent anti-Semitism there had no chance until ordered and enforced by Hitler. I hope Mr. Shub knows what “sexual disarray” is. Is it licentiousness? If so, . . . many well advertised countries [offer] more of it than Germany ever did. . . .

Edwin M. Sears
Denver, Colorado



To the editor:

Ever since the publication of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. early in this century, the “Weber thesis” has been the source of whirlpools of interpretation, criticism, and counter-criticism. Most often, the criticism insists that Weber under-estimated the economic factors in the development of modern capitalism. It takes a good deal of fanciful misreading to claim that “. . . . Weber and Tawney felt the need to reduce them [the Puritans] to economic men,” as Anatole Shub does. Indeed, it was Tawney himself who, in the Foreword to the English translation of The Protestant Ethic claimed that Weber “seems to lay in the present essay somewhat too exclusive an emphasis upon intellectual and ethical forces. . . .”

Weber time and again mentions the incredible complexity of events that was 17th-century capitalism and Protestantism. He reiterates continually that he is abstracting for the sake of analytic generalization and tentative hypothesis, when he indicates that Puritanism and capitalism had something to do with one another. At several places he plainly writes that he is not concerned with the “chicken-and-egg” question. And he writes at the end of his work: “The modern man is in general, even with the best will, unable to give religious ideas a significance for culture and national character which they deserve. But it is, of course, not my aim to substitute for a one-sided materialistic an equally one-sided spiritualistic causal interpretation of culture and of history. Each is equally possible, but each, if it does not serve as the preparation, but as the conclusion of an investigation, accomplishes equally little in the interest of historical truth.”

Mr. Shub’s flipness in dealing with Weber’s words and meanings does little justice to Max Weber, or to history. . . .

David Cooperman
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minnesota



Mr. Shub writes:

If I read Mr. Sears correctly, it was by sheer accident (Hindenburg’s “mistake”) that Nazism took power in Germany, and by force alone that the Nazi clique maintained itself for twelve years; I find this notion unconvincing. The splendid behavior under Nazi occupation of such peoples as the Danes and the Dutch has shown that it takes two to make a war crime—not only a few bestial rulers but a great many compliant subjects as well. If one denies (as Mr. Sears appears to do) that the possibility of Nazism was implicit in the German climate of the 20’s, one can only regard Nazism as some kind of diabolus ex machina.

I shall not attempt to elucidate each of the phrases in my article questioned by Mr. Sears (that would require another article, which could not “prove” the point in any case); but I would observe that he criticizes the vagueness of the words “religious hysteria” when the phrase I actually used was “religious hatred”—clearly, anti-Semitism. (The murder of Rathenau—a decade before Hitler—is sufficient, by the way, to make me doubt that “violent anti-Semitism . . . had no chance until ordered and enforced” by the Nazis.)

Mr. Cooperman’s letter indicates that I did not make sufficiently clear the manner in which C. V. Wedgwood’s histories undercut Max Weber’s “thesis.” Weber and Tawney both assumed an important connection between Puritanism and the capitalist bourgeoisie; they disagreed, as Mr. Cooperman says, as to which influenced the other more profoundly. Miss Wedgwood’s histories, however, question the connection altogether; they lift the discussion of Puritan ideas to another plane entirely—the plane of the history of democracy, a system and ideology which in her view (and mine) do not at all depend on capitalism. The various strains of the English Puritan rebellion, she shows, lead not only to what is commonly called “bourgeois liberalism” but also to democratic socialism and communitarianism of a most egalitarian type. Not only does Miss Wedgwood’s narrative flatly disprove many of Weber’s factual assumptions (e.g., that “the adherents of Puritan church discipline in England were found especially among the bourgeois capitalist middle class, thus, for instance, in the City of London”); but the variety of social thought and circumstances she portrays casts doubt on the very essence of Weber’s thesis.

Weber argued that “it is not the ethical doctrine of a religion but that form of ethical conduct upon which premiums are placed that matters. . . . For Puritanism, that conduct was a certain methodical, rational way of life which—given certain conditions—paved the way for the ‘spirit’ of modern capitalism.” He held that the Puritan’s belief in “proving” himself before God and his fellow men “helped to deliver the ‘spirit’ of modern capitalism, its specific ethos: the ethos of the modern bourgeois middle classes” (italics in original).

We should now realize that the “methodical, rational way of life” essential for industrialization does not require Puritan ethical notions, or capitalism for that matter; modern Russia and Japan, both rather methodical industrial nations with assertive middle classes, owe little to Protestantism of any kind. Miss Wedgwood, on the other hand, shows that the debt of contemporary democratic ideas and institutions to the English Puritans is immense—in other words, that their ethical doctrine did in the long run matter more than the social norms to which many of them, like many other Europeans of the 17th century, adhered.

Weber, writing in Wilhelmian Germany, could not help but consider capitalism a more inclusive, more decisive condition than democracy; and it was perhaps natural, too, that he felt that “Protestantism, especially, legitimated the authoritarian state.” It is even more natural that Miss Wedgwood, writing in Britain’s welfare democracy after the experience of Bolshevism and Fascism, should find the enduring significance of Puritanism not in its historical congruence with certain economic modes, but in its fundamental development of the theory and practice of political democracy. This was, after all, the way the Puritans perceived it at the time—and there is no law of modern historiography that says they must have been wrong.



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