These are selected passages from a series of lectures given by Max Weber at the end of 1918 to the Free Students Union of Munich University and published the following year. The passages are from the essay “Politics as a Vocation.”
“Every state is founded on force,” said Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk. That is indeed right. If no social institutions existed which knew the use of violence, then the concept of “state” would be eliminated, and a condition would emerge that could be designated as “anarchy,” in the specific sense of this word. Of course, force is certainly not the normal or the only means of the state — nobody says that — but force is a means specific to the state.
Today the relation between the state and violence is an especially intimate one. In the past, the most varied institutions — beginning with the Sippe [clan, kindred, extended family] — have known the use of physical force as quite normal. Today, however, we have to say that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.
Note that “territory” is one of the characteristics of the state. Specifically, at the present time, the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it. The state is considered the sole source of the “right” to use violence.
Politics as Power
Hence, “politics” for us means striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state.
This corresponds essentially to ordinary usage. When a question is said to be a “political” question, when a cabinet minister or an official is said to be a “political” official, or when a decision is said to be “politically” determined, what is always meant is that interests in the distribution, maintenance, or transfer of power are decisive for answering the questions and determining the decision or the official’s sphere of activity. He who is active in politics strives for power either as a means in serving other aims, ideal or egoistic, or as “power for power’s sake,” that is, in order to enjoy the prestige-feeling that power gives.
Like the political institutions historically preceding it, the state is a relation of men dominating men, a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e., considered to be legitimate) violence. If the state is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be.
Today we do not take a stand on this question. I state only the purely conceptual aspect for our consideration: the modern state is a compulsory association, which organizes domination. It has been successful in seeking to monopolize the legitimate use of physical force as a means of domination within a territory.
To this end the state has combined the material means of organization in the hands of its leaders, and it has expropriated all autonomous functionaries of estates who formerly controlled these means in their own right. The state has taken their positions and now stands in the top place.
During this process of political expropriation, which has occurred with varying success in all countries on earth, “professional politicians” in another sense have emerged. They arose first in the service of a prince. They have been men who, unlike the charismatic leader, have not wished to be lords themselves, but who have entered the service of political lords. In the struggle of expropriation, they placed themselves at the princes’ disposal and by managing the princes’ politics they earned, on the one hand, a living and, on the other hand, an ideal content of life.
Again it is only in the Occident that we find this kind of professional politician in the service of powers other than the princes. In the past, they have been the most important power instrument of the prince and his instrument of political expropriation.
Politics as Violence
The decisive means for politics is violence.
Whoever wants to engage in politics at all, and especially in politics as a vocation, has to realize these ethical paradoxes. He must know that he is responsible for what may become of himself under the impact of these paradoxes. I repeat, he lets himself in for the diabolic forces lurking in all violence. The great virtuosi of acosmic love of humanity and goodness, whether stemming from Nazareth or Assisi or from Indian royal castles, have not operated with the political means of violence. Their kingdom was “not of this world” and yet they worked and still work in this world. The figures of Platon Karataev and the saints of Dostoyevski still remain their most adequate reconstructions. He who seeks the salvation of the soul, of his own and of others, should not seek it along the avenue of politics, for the quite different tasks of politics can only be solved by violence.
The genius or demon of politics lives in an inner tension with the god of love, as well as with the Christian God as expressed by the church. This tension can at any time lead to an irreconcilable conflict. Men knew this even in the times of church rule. Time and again the papal interdict was placed upon Florence and at the time it meant a far more robust power for men and their salvation of soul than (to speak with Fichte) the “cool approbation” of the Kantian ethical judgment. The burghers, however, fought the church-state. And it is with reference to such situations that Machiavelli in a beautiful passage, if I am not mistaken, of the History of Florence, has one of his heroes praise those citizens who deemed the greatness of their native city higher than the salvation of their souls. If one says “the future of socialism” or “international peace,” instead of native city or “fatherland” (which at present may be a dubious value to some), then you face the problem as it stands now. Everything that is striven for through political action operating with violent means and following an ethic of responsibility endangers the “salvation of the soul.”
ABOUT MAX WEBER
Max Weber (1864–1920) was a German sociologist, philosopher, and political economist. He is often cited, with Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx, as one of the three founders of sociology.