Joachim Radkau’s Max Weber

In the New Left Review:

At the time of his death, Weber’s only book publications were the two texts necessary for an academic career, while the main body of his work—the vast mass of Economy and Society; The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism—either languished in manuscript or had appeared in specialist journals. It was Marianne who assembled these studies into posthumous collections and edited the unpublished texts, thus ensuring a growing but still limited reputation in the Weimar Republic. International sacralization came with Talcott Parsons’s rendition of The Protestant Ethic into English in 1930 and highly selective use of Weber for the construction of his own structural functionalism. It was this edulcorated transatlantic version that was re-imported into the fledgling Federal Republic as a ‘good’ German, tainted neither by Nazi collaboration nor Marxist sympathies.

In 1959 this image was decisively challenged by Wolfgang Mommsen’s Max Weber and German Politics. Mommsen’s meticulous reconstruction of Weber’s ‘unsentimental politics of power’ created a furore in Adenauer’s Germany. The counter-attack—and, to some extent, successful recapture—was led by Parsons himself at the Heidelberg Soziologentag in 1964. Weber’s influence as a far-sighted liberal advocate of the ‘ethics of responsibility’, theorist of modernity and a founder of the distinctively modernist enterprise of sociology continued to grow, both in Germany and internationally. Less a distinct tendency or school than an ether in which the social sciences are bathed, his generic concepts—‘the Protestant ethic’, ‘charismatic leadership’, ‘rationalization’, ‘disenchantment’ and ‘ideal types’—have entered the lexicon of modern intellectual life, if all too often stripped of the originary contexts of their formulation. Weber’s standing remains such that Lawrence Scaff could argue that whoever is ‘able to have his own Weber interpretation accepted could determine the further progress of the social sciences’: ‘Weber is power’.