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Revolutions without any Goal. Ethics and politics in a letter from Max Weber to Roberto Michels

Dimitri D'Andrea

Abstract


Wolfgang Mommsen described the relationship between Weber and Michels as an “asymmetrical partnership” (Mommsen 1981). This asymmetry was not only linked to the former’s academic position and age, but also to the fact that Weber sensed something in Michels’ views that he himself had distanced himself from, but at the same time continued to reflect on. It was a subtle mix of similarities and differences that allowed Weber to engage in a dialogue with himself, in which he was able to formulate his positions in an unusually explicit and direct way (Mommsen 1989: 88). The issues were discussed in a correspondence which spanned many years, but was particularly intense and significant between 1906 and 1909, and actually revolved around two central themes: 1) a realistic analysis of political phenomena, processes and institutions which aimed, among other things, at defining the scope of what is politically possible and, 2) a reflection on the subjective attitude to be assumed in dealing with the ongoing political transformations and the aspirations of various collective actors in the field. Precisely because of its ambiguity, this Weberian perspective constituted an anomalous political realism, which was anything but indifferent to the normative questions that a realistic diagnosis poses to subjectivity. Michels’ letter of August 4, 1908, presented here for the first time in its entirety in an English translation, enables us to grasp a crucial phase in the development of this particular Weberian realism in which the fundamental inspiration is already present but in the argumentation of which neither the categories (ethics of conviction, ethics of responsibility and, in particular, the acosmism of love), nor the conclusions that he would reach in a later phase (Politics as Vocation) are put forward. What the letter offers the reader is a glimpse of a work in progress, which is not just of philological-exegetical interest but also highly valuable in a theoretical sense, since it allows us to reflect on questions such as the connection between ethics and politics, the limits and conditions of a possible radical transformation of the world which, even after the end of the short Twentieth century, continue to be of burning relevance.

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