Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Reading :: From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology

From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology
Edited by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills

I picked this vintage book up at the used book store for, I think, a dollar. The 1958 cover is a thing of beauty:

Anyway. I didn't actually read the entire book—it's excerpts, many from the other Weber works I have read: Economy and Society and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Instead, I read, and will briefly review, the editors' 74-page introduction.

Why the introduction? I was recently looking for an overview of Weber's life and thought, especially as I began contrasting the Protestant ethic with what one might call the Soviet ethic. One reference was to this introduction, and since the book was already on my shelf waiting to be read, I grabbed it.

I'm glad I did. Although the prose is expansive at points, the authors clearly understand Weber quite well. They cover these major points:

  • biography
  • political concerns
  • intellectual orientations (including Weber's lifelong struggle with Marx's ideas)
I'm most interested in the political concerns, so let's jump to there and pull out some quotes.

On p.38, the editors discuss Weber's evolution in political orientation:
Before Weber's critical examination, no single German stratum seemed to be satisfactory for the job at hand [i.e., establishing a working democracy]. Accordingly, he raised a critical voice, first of all against the head of the nation, the Kaiser, whom he scathingly derided as a dilettante cowering behind divine right of kings. The structure of German party life seemed hopeless as a check on the uncontrolled power of a politically docile but technically perfected bureaucratic machine. He pierced the radical phrases of the Social Democrats as the hysterical howling of powerless party journalists drilling the masses for an intellectual goosestep, thus making them more amenable to manipulation by the bureaucracy. At the same time, the utopian comfort contained in revisionist Marxism's automatic drift into paradise appeared to substitute a harmless complacency for righteous indignation. And he thought that the Social Democrats' refusal to make any compromises with bourgeois parties and assume cabinet responsibilities was one of the factors blocking the introduction to constitutional government. Later political analyses made by Weber sprang from this desperate search for a stratum that would measure up to the political tasks of leadership in an era of imperialist rivalry. (p.38)
I note that Weber's assessment of the revisionist Marxists parallels that of Lenin's (!). And the focus on the revisionist Marxism of Weber's time tracks the account Giddens gives us in
Giddens, A. (1970). Marx, Weber, and the Development of Capitalism. Sociology, 4(3), 289–310.
 Weber, the editors say, used Marx's historical method as a "heuristic" because
As a view of world history, Marxism seemed to him an untenable monocausal theory and thus prejudicial to an adequate reconstruction of social and historical connections. He felt that Marx as an economist had made the same mistake that, during Weber's days, anthropology was making: raising a segmental perspective to paramount importance and reducing the multiplicity of causal factors to a single-factor theorem.
Weber does not squarely oppose historical materialism as altogether wrong; he merely takes exception to its claim of establishing a single and universal causal sequence. (pp.46-47)
 The editors see Weber's work as "an attempt to 'round out' Marx's economic materialism by a political and military materialism," applying a generally Marxist approach to these other causal factors (p.47). Weber was eager to keep economic and political power distinct (p.47).

Weber and Marx thus part ways on a number of points. For instance, the editors say, Marx saw capitalism as irrational due to its fundamental contradiction between the rational advances of productive forces and the fetters of the market; Weber, in contrast, saw capitalism as rational, dynamic, and requiring specialists (p.49). Weber agreed that a class struggle was occurring, but he "does not see them as the central dynamic"; he agrees that socialism of means of production may someday occur, but sees that as a distant eventuality (cf. Schumpeter) (p.49). And, he argued, "Socialization of the means of production would merely subject an as yet relatively autonomous economic life to the bureaucratic management of the state" (p.49). That is, whereas Lenin thought that worldwide socialism would lead to the withering away of the state, the disappearance of the division of labor, and the death of bureaucracy, Weber argued that it would strengthen both. (Given the subsequent history of the Soviet Union, I think Weber won that argument handily. Robert Service mentioned in his biography of Lenin that Lenin refused to read contemporaries such as Weber; too bad.)

May I take one more shot at Lenin? Lenin, echoing Marx's Critique of the Gotha Program, saw the intermediate phase between capitalism and worldwide socialism as the dictatorship of the proletariat, in which the workers would take over the state and freeze out the bourgeoise. Weber argued the opposite: "'For the time being,' he wrote, 'the dictatorship of the official and not the worker is on the march'" (p.50).

Weber also interpreted one of Marx's central claims—that the worker was separated from the means of production—as simply part of a larger trend. "The modern soldier is equally 'separated' from the means of violence; the scientist from the means of enquiry, and the civil servant from the means of administration. ... The series as a whole exemplifies the comprehensive underlying trend of bureaucratization" (p.50).

Let's stop there. I found this introductory essay to be tremendously useful for putting Weber and Marx in dialogue, as well as for examining some of the pushback on Marxist assumptions in general. Since I expect to reread Capital pretty soon, I'll be keeping Weber's arguments in mind.

If you can get your hands on this book, and if you're similarly interested in Marxist vs. Weberian views, certainly you should read this introduction.

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