In 1953, Leo Strauss prefaced his penetrating criticism of Max Weber with the judgment: “Whatever may have been his errors, he is the greatest social scientist of our century.” Indeed, Weber was then a sort of prince of social scientists insofar as his methodological reflections, and in particular his stricture against value judgments, dominated social science. His reign, however, ended in the 1960s with the rise of the New Left and its insistence that academics must make value judgments in the face of the political and social crisis of the time. I was surprised and intrigued by the title of the short work Nihilistic Times: Thinking with Max Weber, which suggests that the author, Wendy Brown, is attempting to rehabilitate Weber as a guide for our nihilistic times. The surprise, however, subsided when I learned that the ultimate aim of this rehabilitation is “to mobilize [Weber’s] insights for phenomena he abjured, such as left-political mobilizations or deep democratization.”

Professor Brown focuses on Weber’s two great lectures, “Science as a Vocation” (originally given in 1917) and “Politics as a Vocation” (1919). She seems to prefer the latter as a source of guidance to the former, which she criticizes for creating an “unbridgeable moat . . . between the academic and the political realm.” For her, the “Politics” lecture “is a practice of working through nihilism by restoring politics to its ancient meaning—the struggle over ‘who we are’ and ‘what we should do.’ . . . [I]t aims to make politics redemptive after the death of God.” Brown is specifically attracted by the hope that a leftist charismatic leader would restore “value to values” in our nihilistic times and “re-enchant the political realm.” As she puts it: 

Charisma, with its capacity to incite and excite, inspire and mobilize, and above all lead beyond business as usual, is an indisputably potent element of life. For the Left to do without it while the Right milks it for advantage is to ensure defeat. 

She hopes that these future charismatic leaders, being in touch with the desires of the masses, will “reroute these desires” toward the values cherished by the Left. She seeks to pave the way for the reception of such leaders by combating “the left rationalists,” those who imagine “reason as independent of desire,” and by persuading liberals or progressives who are wary of charismatic leaders. 

The basic assumption of Brown’s study is that nihilism is the root of our political troubles. But did Weber understand the political predicament of his time as an expression of nihilism? In fact, Weber never uses the word “nihilism” in the two lectures that are the focus of Brown’s analysis. The basic problem that he discusses in “Politics as a Vocation”the lecture in which Brown sees the cure to nihilismis in fact the tension between any absolute ethics (or any ethics that gives unconditional commands) and the duties of a political man, who must consider the consequences of political actions. He is thus bound by a different kind of ethics, which Weber calls “the ethics of responsibility.” Weber presents this tension as an insoluble and permanent (though livable) one and, therefore, not something that is peculiar to his own times. 

While Brown makes Weber address something that he does not even mention, she altogether ignores the manifest political predicament facing Weber and his audience: the defeat of Germany. Amazingly, there is not one reference to the World War in Brown’s interpretation of a lecture on politics given in Munich at a time when the allies had gathered to determine the fate of Germany. There is no indication that when Weber tells the proud young Germans before him that “a polar night of icy darkness and hardness” lies ahead of them, he is not speaking of nihilism but of the fear that Germany as an independent and powerful nation may for some time cease to exist. 

The notion of a charismatic leader emerged first in Weber’s writings on religion, in which he distinguished the charismatic prophets from the patriarchs and priests. But in the last decade of his life, he began to apply this notion to political rulers, such as “the elected war lord, the plebiscitarian ruler, the great demagogue, or the political party leader.” Accordingly, it came to supplement Weber’s two other modes of authority, the legal-rationalistic and the traditional. By a charismatic leader, Weber does not necessarily mean an attractive, warm, popular leader who exudes an air of confidence. Strictly speaking, he does not even mean a type of personality, though he suggests that such leaders tend to experience “certain ‘abnormal’ states which are frequently, but not always, regarded by present-day psychiatry as pathological and hence have been capable of exercising a special influence on others.” Precisely speaking, charismatic leadership is a particular kind of bond between the leader and his followers, in which the latter are passionately devoted to their leader because they believe, correctly or incorrectly, that he possesses supernatural or at least extraordinary powers, qualities that are outside of what one meets in everyday life. When Donald Trump boasted that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody without losing any votes, he in effect was claiming that he is a particularly pure type of a charismatic leader.

For Weber, charismatic leadership is not a prescription or an ideal. It is simply one basis of political rule. It is a value-neutral concept because the followers of such a leader may err in their assessment of the qualities of their leader without altering the fact that they obey him because of what they believe about him. The category includes the Nordic berserk who works himself up “like a mad dog, before rushing off in bloodthirsty frenzy” as well as “the ‘greatest’ heroes, prophets, and saviors according to conventional judgments.” Closer to his own situation, Weber describes the revolutionary premier of Bavaria, Kurt Eisner, as a charismatic leader, though he disapproved of Eisner so much that he agreed to give the lecture, “Politics as a Vocation,” only when he discovered the alternative to him would have been Eisner. Weber even praised Eisner’s assassin, while insisting that the assassin should have been executed.

Whereas for Weber charismatic leadership is a descriptive category, for Brown it is prescriptive or an ideal. Brown seems to be attracted to charismatic rule in part because it is the only mode of domination that “obtains obedience through challenging the givenness of the present, its powers and routines;” that is, it is the only one that is revolutionary. There is some merit to this characterization, but it bears remembering Weber’s observation that the great political revolution of modern times, the French Revolution, was animated by juridical rationalism insofar as lawyers dominated the French parliament. Given Brown’s distaste for Donald Trump, it may be apposite to observe that those who are appalled by his attempt to subvert the election of 2020 are in fact appealing, whether they know it or not, to the rational-legalistic basis for obedience. 

In fairness to Brown, the thrust of “Politics as a Vocation” is in tension with Weber’s value-neutral notion of charismatic leadership. Weber makes it clear that the whole question whether politics is one’s vocation, whether an inner voice has called one to politics, can only be raised in the context of charismatic leadership. And he seems intent on giving some objective criteria for knowing whether one has this calling. To have a vocation for politics, he argues, one must possess an ethic of responsibility, an ethic that requires three qualities: devotion to a cause, a sense of proportion, and freedom from vanity. Weber is effectively placing immense rational restraints on a politics that is fueled by emotions. Rhetorically, Weber seems to have wanted to drive away the vast majority of his audience and readers from choosing politics as their vocation and to inoculate all of his readers against irresponsible versions of charismatic leadership. Brown uses this lecture for the opposite purpose of political mobilization in the service of ideological politics and of breaking down the resistance to charismatic leadership. 

Brown is hardly the first person to be attracted to charismatic leadership through Weber’s treatment of the topic. The very division of modes of domination into three kinds necessarily leads those who are dissatisfied with tradition and modern liberal rationalism to look to charismatic leadership as a cure. Those who think the world needs redemption are inclined to look for a leader who has been given the gift of grace. Weber himself sometimes, especially in his writing on religion, spoke of charisma with some enthusiasm; and the relatively new notion of Führer, which he elaborated and popularized, is intimately connected with the idea of charisma. Accordingly, many students of Weber have wondered whether his introduction of the concept of charismatic leader made it easier for some Germans to regard Hitler (who certainly did not fit in the categories of legal-rationalistic or traditional modes of authority) as a worthy choice, though there is no doubt that Weber himself would have rejected Hitler. Brown does not address this difficulty. In fact, Hitler is not mentioned even once in Brown’s work.

In fairness to Brown, the thrust of “Politics as a Vocation” is in tension with Weber’s value-neutral notion of charismatic leadership. Weber makes it clear that the whole question whether politics is one’s vocation, whether an inner voice has called one to politics, can only be raised in the context of charismatic leadership.


Since her overriding purpose is to use Weber to allay people’s fears about charismatic leadership, Brown sometimes misuses Weber’s texts to that end. She argues, for example, that charismatic leadership is marked by “its special balance of ‘inner determination’ and ‘inner restraint,’” but the passage to which she refers as the basis of this claim is one in which Weber is articulating the completely autocratic character of charismatic leadership: “[C]harisma is self-determined and sets its own limits. Its bearer seizes the task for which he is destined and demands that others obey and follow him by virtue of his mission.” 

In her effort to weaponize Weber’s insight, Brown even deploys arguments that frankly one would not expect from an eminent political theorist. Eager to distinguish demagogues from charismatic leaders (contrary to Weber who gives the great demagogue as an example of a charismatic leader), she asserts: “Charismatic leadership is defined by the overwhelmingly attractive quality of the values the leader heralds or embodies, and a charismatic leader differs in this way from a mere demagogue.” Are not Trump and his call to make America great overwhelmingly attractive to his followers? Is there a leader who embodies values that are attractive to everyone? Since Brown denies the existence of an objective standard for assessing values, she seems to mean by a charismatic leader someone who embodies values that are overwhelmingly attractive to her. But are not human beings often bamboozled by attractive promises?

It is a shame that instead of trying to use Weber to mobilize the Left, Brown does not use him to educate it. Brown speaks highly of an “ethic of responsibility,” but her contempt for “instrumental reason” or “calculative reason” prevents her from seeing that the ethic that she so admires requires the will to calculate the probable consequences of political action and to heed those calculations. She also does not give an example of how this ethic operates in real life. Here is an example from a conversation between Weber and Joseph Schumpeter as reported by Felix Somary:

The conversation turned to the Russian Revolution, and Schumpeter expressed his satisfaction that socialism was no longer a paper discussion but had to demonstrate its viability. Weber grew rather excited and declared that communism at Russia’s stage of development was quite simply a crime; . . . the road would pass through untold human suffering and end in a terrible catastrophe. “That may be so,” Schumpeter said, “but it will be a nice little experiment for us.” “A laboratory with heaps of human corpses,” Weber specified. “All anatomy is like that,” Schumpeter came back . . . Weber flared up and spoke more loudly, Schumpeter more softly and sarcastically, while all around them the coffee-house customers interrupted their card game and listened to them with curiosity, until Weber jumped up and hurried out to the Ringstrasse with the words: “That’s more than anyone can take.” (Joachim Radkau, Max Weber: A Biography, translated by Patrick Camiller [Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2009].) 

Schumpeter’s moral obtuseness or fecklessness, born of the desire for certainty, need not concern us here. But there is another kind of moral obtuseness that is born of moral fervor or moral posturing that is very much alive today. And to the extent that it flourishes on the Left, it needs to be addressed by someone who cares about the Left. Are absolutist moral slogans such as “no human is illegal” or “defund the police” not a way of closing off careful discussion about the social, economic, and human costs of certain policies? 

Surely one way of fending off the Right, a way that does not involve waiting for a charismatic savior, is to reject policies that are destroying American cities. There is not an iota of criticism of such tendencies of the contemporary Left in Brown’s book; yet she would like to assure us that the next leftist charismatic leader will be animated by an ethic of responsibility.

Image by somartin and licensed via Adobe Stock. Image resized.