At ToM, we have always loved Max Weber’s essay “Politics as a Vocation” — especially, and always, in times of political despair. The wise old sociologist was speaking amid revolutionary tumult in Germany in 1919, in the wake of the First World War. (And yes, he was speaking, despite the fact that the lecture is extraordinarily long and dense.) Somehow, Weber knew that dark times were ahead — perhaps even intuiting the rise of Nazism, as you can see in the quotation below. But he urged his countrymen and comrades to steel themselves for the hard vicissitudes of politics, whatever may come their way.
Eric Foner reminded us of this in the darkest days of George W. Bush and the Iraq War, citing the closing lines of Weber’s essay—”Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth—that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.”
It sounds a lot like a certain losing candidate’s Wellesley graduation speech, doesn’t it? He was right. She was right. You can read the entire essay here, but the passages most resonant with the current moment are below:
Now then, ladies and gentlemen, let us debate this matter once more ten years from now. Unfortunately, for a whole series of reasons, I fear that by then the period of reaction will have long since broken over us. It is very probable that little of what many of you, and (I candidly confess) I too, have wished and hoped for will be fulfilled; little–perhaps not exactly nothing, but what to us at least seems little. This will not crush me, but surely it is an inner burden to realize it. Then, I wish I could see what has become of those of you who now feel yourselves to be genuinely ‘principled’ politicians and who share in the intoxication signified by this revolution. It would be nice if matters turned out in such a way that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 102 should hold
Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays;
As Philomel in summer’s front doth sing,
And stops her pipe in growth of riper days.
But such is not the case. Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness, no matter which group may triumph externally now. Where there is nothing, not only the Kaiser but also the proletarian has lost his rights. When this night shall have slowly receded, who of those for whom Spring apparently has bloomed so luxuriously will be alive? And what will have become of all of you by then? Will you be bitter or banausic? Will you simply and dully accept world and occupation? Or will the third and by no means the least frequent possibility be your lot: mystic flight from reality for those who are gifted for it, or—as is both frequent and unpleasant—for those who belabor themselves to follow this fashion?
In every one of such cases, I shall draw the conclusion that they have not measured up to their own doings. They have not measured up to the world as it really is in its everyday routine. Objectively and actually, they have not experienced the vocation for politics in its deepest meaning, which they thought they had. They would have done better in simply cultivating plain brotherliness in personal relations. And for the rest–they should have gone soberly about their daily work.
Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth—that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.