Book of the Week - Max Weber: A Biography

February 26, 2009

In one of the opening chapters of this absorbing and meticulously researched biography of the great polymath of the human sciences, the author recounts the fate of Max Weber's talented younger brother, Alfred. Doomed to for ever exist in the shadow of Max's achievements and celebrity, even after his brother's death he remained "Minimax" to many friends and associates, the custodian and defender of his family's heritage.

Perhaps inevitably, this information served to reconstitute the filial pair for me as Mike Myers and Verne Troyer, joking their way through a Sturm und Drang version of an Austin Powers movie. But although the casting and format may not be exactly right, this biography recounts a complex, moving story that is likely to prove of greater interest to Werner Herzog than the directors of teen comedies.

Max would surely have agreed with Louis B. Mayer, however, that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of his audience - although the genius of German letters in the tumultuous late 19th and early 20th centuries experienced the torments of depression and mental breakdown as well as his own failure to deal with the limitations of his audience of students and academic peers.

Joachim Radkau's text, translated by Patrick Camiller and disappointingly cut down from the original German edition to leave out its sections on sociology, is, in many ways, a tour de force. It will surely become an essential resource for the countless number of scholars still wrestling with the fundamental issues of methodology, epistemology and analysis to which Weber brought his fiercely incisive intellect.

Above all, however, this is a biography, and it focuses uncompromisingly on the central drama of Weber's life. Self-consciously reflexive, it applies Weber's own concepts and methods to look into the complexities of the subject's restless and quixotic genius, his life history and his repressed and complex sexuality, haunted by an unconsummated relationship with his wife, Marianne, and an imagined menage a trois with Else Jaffe, Minimax's lover.

The book, which is full of compelling detail, skips smoothly from accounts of his personal life and circle of friends - according to this account, the most extraordinary collection of neurotics and hypochondriacs outside a Ken Kesey novel - to the development of his career and the ideas that sprang from his boundlessly creative imagination.

The drama comes when, as his wife later wrote, "nature took her revenge". The anxiety and stress of an unbalanced life consumed with the pressures of academe and politics, plus an unfulfilled and childless (if "comradely") marriage, created enormous psychological pressure. At the height of his academic career, Weber was struck down by a condition variously diagnosed by the legendary psychologist Emil Kraepelin as neurasthenia, by friends as the pressure of work, and by Weber and his partner as a consequence of repressed and unsatisfied sexuality.

The book is determined to undertake a task for which the author argues Weber himself was unconstitutionally equipped - an exploration of the place of an individual in society and history. This, Weber believed, was the "atomic physics" of sociology, for with this focus on the individual comes a multiplicity of views and perspectives, and thereby, as with physics itself, inherent indeterminacy.

Radkau sets out, at the beginning of the text, the main aim of this biography, which is to rescue Weber from the place he has been given "as a writer who widened the gulf between (C.P.) Snow's 'two cultures' of literature and sociology on the one hand, and natural science and technology on the other" - as an enemy of nature, in point of fact.

The portrait of a man driven by the twin demonic passions of a questing and powerful intellect on the one hand and a chained and sublimated eroticism on the other is beautifully realised, and the account of his circle and their loves and conflicts is seamlessly integrated into a challenging and thoughtful review of his oeuvre.

This is a very individual account, foregrounding as it does the genesis of Weber's enthusiasms and the mercurial shifts in his interests and intellectual engagements firmly and clearly in his personal life and circle of friends. As Radkau notes in a charming account of Weber's eccentric and infuriatingly disorganised working methods, this was not a man who ploughed his way systematically through card-index files collected during research and fieldwork. The limits of his scientific rigour are revealed during an early study of farm workers. The report was prepared in extra-quick time but, behind the scenes, Weber became bored and irritated by the process of preparing and computing the data from the questionnaires employed. He dismissed it as "women's work" and had to be coaxed through the process by his effective and energetic wife.

Weber's passions, imagination and prejudices, the author shows, certainly played a significant role in the origins of his theses.

My conceptions of Weber - which were formed long ago on the basis of Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills' edited collection of his papers, his classic texts, the enthusiasm of writers from Talcott Parsons to Zygmunt Bauman for his work, and have stayed largely unchallenged since then - have certainly been complemented by reading this study.

One of the dead icons of sociology, neatly consigned to a honoured place on the basis of his classic studies of religion, the rise of capitalism, its related systems of organisation and leadership, and methodology in the human sciences, has become a much more complex and fragile figure, more human and fallible, yet somehow more substantial.

This book makes no connection - perhaps it is too obvious to need mentioning, but it is surely germane - to what his pupil Albert Salomon referred to as Weber's "debate with the ghost of Marx". Perhaps that is part of what has been excised, along with the connections and statements that used to be made connecting his breakdown to the contradictions and conflicts in his political beliefs and his pessimism about the inevitable dehumanisation of the "iron cage" of bureaucratisation in complex modern societies.

Radkau mentions in passing that Alfred Weber was even more pessimistic about these issues than Max, and offered an account of the dangers to one Franz Kafka, a friend of one of his students, when teaching in Vienna.

In challenging the popular conception of Weber and bringing the emotional and erotic dimensions of his personal life and that of his familiars into conjunction with his work and ideas, this book is as fascinating as it is challenging. It may not overturn the established view of where he fits in the canon, but it is a fine addition to Weber studies.

Finally then, join me in developing a cast list for the film of Weber's life. I would go for Benicio del Toro and Cate Blanchett, even if part of me still hankers for a Mike Myers rewrite.


Joachim Radkau, professor of history at the University of Bielefeld, is a fan of musicals. He happily admits to having seen the film Mamma Mia! three times, despite the fact that a friend "ran out in the middle of the film in protest". His love for the genre is so evident that his publisher has even suggested he write a Max Weber musical.

Radkau, a renowned environmentalist, does not have a driving licence, and finds bicycles and airplanes the "only really delightful means of transport". He enjoys meditating in his garden - "the best place in the world" - as well as in the sauna, where he contemplates chapters of forthcoming books.

He is a keen dancer who is equally happy to take his wife to a dance hall or simply "hop around the kitchen". His wide-ranging love of music permits him to enjoy listening to both Wagner and Bob Marley, though presumably not at the same time.

Radkau has lectured in his field for nearly 40 years, and says he still loves teaching. He has also been married for 40 years, something he describes as a "record among all our acquaintances". He prepares breakfast for his wife, Orlinde, every day before waking her with a hymn.

Max Weber: A Biography

By Joachim Radkau
Polity Press
ISBN 9780745641478
Published 23 January 2009

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