Need, greed or deeds

AT THE BEGINNING of the First World War, a fifty-something German academic, vigorous but not fit enough for the frontline, was appointed to the Military Hospitals Commission and told to organise several reserve hospitals in Heidelberg in quick time. On arrival, sociologist Max Weber found the institutional preparations for his task non-existent, the supply contracts outdated and unusable, and the local tradespeople unable to meet agreed-upon prices. So much for German bureaucracy. So much for German efficiency.

Weber suffered fools badly, including those above him in the German military hierarchy. When the commissariat in Karlsruhe asked why he needed a telephone installed, for example, Marianne Weber recounted in her biography of her husband that he sent the inquiry back with a handwritten note: ‘Normal people know why a telephone is needed, and I cannot explain it to others.’[1]

As with Weber and his telephone, normal people know why better politicians are needed, and it cannot be explained to others. It is not that there are no good politicians. There are, including some misjudged and unjustly scorned, and others simply unrecognised – that is the dumb luck and unfairness of politics.

But do we need better politicians overall? Yes, we do.

In ‘Politics as a Vocation’, a lecture to a group of Munich students several weeks after that war ended so disastrously for Germany, Weber asked what kind of person politicians – these people we license to put their ‘hand on the wheel of history’ – should be.[2] Three pre-eminent qualities were required, he said: ‘Passion, a feeling of responsibility and a sense of proportion.’ Further, these qualities had to be joined up in one and the same person.

Weber recognised this posed a genuine problem, for ‘how can warm passion and a cool sense of proportion be forged together in one and the same soul?’­­[3] The answer lay, he said, in the ‘firm taming of the soul’ that distinguished such a politician from mere dilettantes and the ‘sterilely excited’. Forming the habit of detachment was the key, especially in relation to oneself. ‘Therefore, daily and hourly,’ Weber said, ‘the politician inwardly has to overcome a quite trivial and all-too-human enemy: a quite vulgar vanity, the deadly enemy of all matter-of-fact devotion to a cause, and of all distance, in this case, of distance towards one’s self.’[4]

‘Politics as a Vocation’ is one for the connoisseurs. Readers over the last century would have had names from their own periods and polities popping into their heads as they read Weber’s account of the corrosion that hollows out politicos who succumb to vanity.

He therefore is constantly in danger of becoming an actor as well as taking lightly the responsibility for the outcome of his actions and of being concerned merely with the ‘impression’ he makes. = Rudd

 The mere ‘power politician’ may get strong effects, but actually his work leads nowhere and is senseless. = Abbott [5]

One could go on attaching identities to the dysfunctions Weber described, but it is a parlour game that risks deepening the ennui around contemporary politicians. And that contradicts the spirit of the Weber’s purpose, which was, ultimately, practical. He worried terribly about Germany’s future. His apparently bloodless theorising was rooted in practical concern about how Germany could survive as a strong and secure state in the post-Bismarck political vacuum. As Bryan S Turner described one facet of this, ‘Weber was impressed by the proposition that social policy, however excellent, was useless if the danger of a Cossack invasion could not be contained.’[6]

IN ‘POLITICS AS a Vocation’ and ‘The Sociology of Charismatic Authority’, Weber described charismatic leadership as characterised by the qualities of will, forceful demagogic speech and an aptitude for exploiting ‘mass emotionality’.

The holder of charisma seizes the task that is adequate for him and demands obedience and a following by virtue of his mission. His success determines whether he finds them. His charismatic claim breaks down if his mission is not recognised by those to whom he feels he has been sent. If they recognise him, he is their master – so long as he knows how to maintain recognition through ‘proving’ himself.[7]

Weber expected strong leadership and a robust civil society to ensure political dynamism as nation states inevitably grew more bureaucratic.[8] Thus, in the modern world charismatic leaders would operate in a heterogeneous and pluralistic society that developed ways of sorting out serious leaders from shonks.

Weber used the extensive committee work of British politicians at Westminister as an institutional example of how charismatic charlatans could be sieved from charismatic politicians capable of leading effective governments. ‘All important ministers of recent decades have this very real and effective work-training as a background,’ Weber wrote approvingly. ‘The practice of committee reports and public criticism of these deliberations is a condition for training, for really selecting leaders and eliminating mere demagogues.’[9]

Weber himself was difficult but charismatic, and late in his short life actually ran for office. In December 1918, a month before he delivered his ‘Politics as a Vocation’ talk to that group of Munich students, Weber ran for election to the Reichstag as a German Democratic Party candidate but was too far down the list to win.[10] A little more than a year later, in April 1920, he wrote to Carl Petersen, the German Democratic Party chair, to end his brief, active involvement in politics:

The politician shall and must make compromises. But I am a scholar by profession. The fact that I remained a scholar was due to the party which – fortunately – kept me from a Parliament to which I did not aspire. To sit in Parliament today is neither an honour nor a joy, but I should have perhaps belonged to it while the constitution was debated. The scholar dare not make compromises nor cloak any nonsense. I definitely cannot do this. Those who have other views, such as Professor Lederer and Dr Vogelstein, are unprofessional. If I acted as they have I would regard myself as a criminal to my profession.[11]

Weber made clear in the letter that he remained a Democratic Party supporter but that his active involvement was over. Two months later, in June 1920, he died from pneumonia, aged fifty-six. At least, unlike many who flirt with the idea of politics but never press on with it, he did not die wondering.

HISTORIAN BRUCE FYFE described Weber’s association with active politics, accurately, as ‘brief and disappointing’; it demonstrated ‘the dilemma which practical politics posed for the German intellectual’.[12]

Had he lived and overcome his scholarly amour-propre, Weber could have argued his corner at the Reichstag instead of sitting in one at the University of Munich with his theories and books – marvellous things, both, but far from a direct injection into a body politic desperate for talent, and not nearly as galvanising as advancing deeply held propositions to the face, literally, of one’s opponents. Weber was brainy, organised and strategic in his thinking, conceptually adept on national and international, cultural and economic planes. He was an enthralling teacher who could draw and hold a crowd. He was a good feminist, among other things upbraiding his father over his treatment of Weber’s mother, and supporting wife Marianne in her extensive political activism, including her stint as a German Democratic Party member of the Baden state parliament.

Of course, Weber had his issues. He was irascible, easily drained by public performance, endured the odd breakdown, and had a long extra-marital relationship with social scientist Else Jaffé-von Richthofen (both Marianne and Else were present at his deathbed).[13]

Such attributes are not absolute barriers to direct political careers. ‘Black Jack’ McEwen was irascible; Paul Keating was easily drained by public performance; John Curtin had the odd breakdown (though in contrast to Weber’s, of the alcoholic variety); and Bob Hawke had a long extra-marital relationship with Blanche d’Alpuget; yet all made, in their ways, a huge difference to their constituencies and, through them, the nation.

One could argue that Weber combined too many problems to be viable in public life, but how magnificent it would have been to face and overcome them. Set against his huge potential contribution, the risk was surely worth it. He came close. His arch comment in the letter to Petersen, that the party had saved him from becoming a parliamentarian (by putting him, as it turned out, in an unelectable position on the ballot paper), underlines how close he came.

Had he won office, Weber may have become the MP who made the difference, the scholar who yet learnt how, when he lost a parliamentary battle, to lie in wait and fight another day in the long postwar struggle for a strong, stable, democratic Germany. Maybe he could have – at whatever personal cost, inconvenience and nose-holding disdain for the unsatisfactory business of politics – changed history, for the better.

Some might point to, say, Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian-born Harvard academic who led Canada’s Liberal Party to near total electoral wipeout in the 2011 election, including the loss of his own seat, as evidence such efforts are futile. But Ignatieff, who documented his experience in Fire and Ashes (Harvard University Press, 2013), is rather an argument for mid-career switchers digging in once they transition to politics. Unlike Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull, he did not hang in long enough to apply the crucial learning from his failed opposition leadership. Is there a person in Canada who doesn’t believe the Cabinet of Justin Trudeau, who in contrast led the Liberals to sweeping victory over Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s hardline Conservative Party government in the 2015 election, would not be better with someone of Ignatieff’s calibre in it?

The lesson Ignatieff drew from his crushing at Harper’s hands is that successful democracies have to practise a politics of adversaries, not a politics of enemies – the difference being that an adversary wants to defeat you whereas an enemy wants to destroy you. Harper destroyed Ignatieff, but at the next election was himself trounced by Trudeau and his positive ‘sunny ways’ campaign. Ignatieff articulated the ‘deeper meaning of Justin Trudeau’s triumph…that he showed how a politics of adversaries can defeat a politics of enemies.’ He highlighted, too, how in victory Trudeau, ‘Instead of stoking the partisan ire of his supporters in his victory…quieted a rapturous crowd by reminding them: “Conservatives are not our enemy. They are our neighbours.”’

AUSTRALIA TODAY HAS a number of obviously talented parliamentary up-and-comers, many of them long blooded in the political skills no functioning party can do without. However, there is a large untapped
pool of complementary talent barely being drawn on. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely in the Age of Terror, ex-military personnel are something of an exception to this – for example, Labor’s Mike Kelly and the Liberals’ Andrew Hastie.

The kind of people notably missing, and most missed from parliament, I would argue, are those Weber called occasional politicians. ‘We are all “occasional” politicians,’ he said, ‘when we cast our ballot or consummate a similar expression of intention, such as applauding or protesting in a “political” meeting, or delivering a “political” speech, etc. The whole relation of many people to politics is restricted to this.’[14]

Among those of special interest – with particular potential to diversify and enrich the parliamentary mix – are certain contemporary kinds of Weberian ‘occasional’ politicians. Party members and lapsed members who never pursued politics beyond the rank-and-file, now possessing valuable ‘wider world’ experience; those once active in campus, union or trade association politics whose intense early career and young family demands have eased; those whose life course necessitated bigger or more secure incomes than those offered in the chancy life of politics, now in a position to reorder their priorities; those who think meritocracy is ubiquitous, but can be brought to see and embrace the fact that political advancement comes through messier, less orderly means, and that this is just the way it is; and those who can be persuaded to get over their objections to dealing with the bottom feeders who inevitably inhabit the nether regions of the political world (there are always some).

Such people seem good prospects for combining the passion, feeling of responsibility and sense of proportion Weber considered vital in a good politician. Politics could surely only be better with more of such people in the mix.

Problematic transitions would face those who, scholar-like, as Weber said personally of himself, ‘dare not make compromises’. This is surely one of the single biggest barriers to the kind of people just described joining the political realm: their disdain for, and rejection of, any position on an issue but their own; the refusal to accept that one may lose to another position and have to go, at least for a while, quietly on it.

Yet this is the very respiration of politics. It is about getting more of one’s positions up over time than those who oppose you, in both intra- and inter-party struggles, and still surviving in the arena. Just keep breathing, and live to fight another day for just ends. It is something one can come to understand, accept and practise. As Gough Whitlam famously said at the 1967 ALP conference, ‘Only the impotent are pure.’ Weber’s letter to Petersen was a classic in the privileging of intellectual libido over political fertility. His death just weeks later makes the question figuratively academic, of course, but from what we know now about the unfolding of history, had he lived would Weber have been more valuable in the 1920s and 1930s in the Reichstag or at the University of Munich?

IF WEBER’S STORY a century ago is too remote to relate to today, a more immediate framework is easy to coin. One might say that individual politicians are motivated principally by ‘need’, ‘greed’ or ‘deed’.

Needy politicians can exhibit considerable charisma but it is not well grounded. They can publicly project a powerful inner certainty that conceals a fundamentally brittle sense of self. Rather than just their professional duties, they tend to play out life in the broad on the public stage – as reliant on public attention for personal validation as normal mortals are on oxygen. Their childhood can be marked by absent parents (Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s mother, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s and former Opposition leader Mark Latham’s fathers) or some sort of early psychic wound (former Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s mother’s obvious disappointment he was not the girl child she longed for), and this suggestively underpins a yearning for public approval that seems excessive and bottomless.

Needing to be liked is not conducive, in the long run, to respect. Needy politicians do not always make terrible leaders. Occasionally, supplemented by other qualities like the passion, feeling of responsibility and sense of proportion of which Weber wrote, they are excellent. Hawke is an example. However, politics as psychological self-help is not the firmest of foundations on which to conduct a prime-ministership, and leaderships by the needy tend to end earlier in tears than most.

The second group, the greedy, are somehow both worse and better than the needy. When Abbott government speaker Bronwyn Bishop booked a helicopter on the parliamentary expenses tab to fly from Melbourne to Geelong, when cars and trains would have done the short round-trip perfectly well at a fraction of the cost, her behaviour was instantly understood by voters. She was judged a political hard arse wringing every last perk from her position – unattractive, but meriting a kind of perverse respect as the embodiment of voters’ favorite political caricature, the snout-in-the-trough pol. Everyone agrees, we do not need more greedy politicians.

The third group consists of those who are driven not by their own needs and greeds, but rather by deeds – getting good things done, however they might individually define the ‘good’. They pursue political office to make people’s lives better – reduce inequality, expand opportunity and enterprise, preserve the planet, promote personal safety, national security and international compassion – and are arguably more resistant to the corrosive vanity Weber so evocatively described.

They’re the politicians we need more of, not least to add critical mass to the like-minded already in position, but who are vulnerable to being swamped by the needy and greedy. Labor has had a recent influx of exceptional young MPs – Jim Chalmers, Andrew Leigh, Clare O’Neil and Tim Watts prominent among them – along with a couple of experienced high performers, like former ACT chief minister and now Senator Katy Gallagher. The Coalition has some good newish talent too, including Kellie O’Dwyer, who broke into cabinet last year aged thirty-eight, and Christian Porter, who is the same age as Labor’s Katy Gallagher and, like her, has strong state government experience, in his case as a former WA treasurer. Crucial will be whether a new culture of collaboration and constructive competition develops in this coming group to replace the destructive ego-driven competition of recent political history in Australia, typified by but not restricted to the poisons of the Rudd–Gillard struggle. Gallagher and Porter are good role models on their respective sides of politics, arriving quietly and performing solidly, neither behaving like the big swinging dicks of recent memory. And that’s where the ranks of ‘occasional’ politicians are there to be drawn on too – those for whom life, in various ways, got in the way of politics; who accumulated valuable ‘wider world’ experience as a result and who could be drawn into the parliamentary ranks now with tremendous effect, reinforcing them for a more honourable and effective politics. They are highly prospective candidates for developing that trio of traits Weber considered vital in a good politician, combining passion, a feeling of responsibility and a sense of proportion – more so, in many ways, than the professional cadres now dominant across politics for whom intra- and inter-party combat is the prime reason for being. These skills are necessary and their practitioners are essential, but dominance by them risks the development of political monocultures that voters ultimately reject.

An anecdote from last year’s British Labour leadership contest encapsulates the risk. The point of difference that former Brown government minister Andy Burnham emphasised at one stage in his campaign against Jeremy Corbyn, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall was being the candidate with the most ‘real life’ experience – a ‘few years’ working as a journalist on ‘trade publications’.[15] To paraphrase Weber, normal people know why better politicians are needed, and it cannot be explained to others.

IN AUSTRALIA, EVEN shocking anecdotes like this from Britain – the canary down the mine of Anglosphere politics – are likely to be scoffed at by party hard heads.

It is true that it’s not easy, but there are obvious places where it would be easy to make a start. There is this thing called the Senate that could be stacked with talent instead of branch-stackers. (If you think branch-stacking is a blight only in Labor politics, take a look at the NSW Liberal Party and think again.)

To put it at its most blunt, the conduct of contemporary politics in Australia compares unfavourably even to the conduct of the Australian Football League (Essendon aside). The major parties’ teams have been dominated by just two kinds of players: flashy full forwards (charismatic leaders-in-waiting) and dour, slow backs (political hacks). Where are the political list managers and coaches out recruiting a winning mix, including tall rucks to win the tap outs; driving centre half forwards to get the ball from the centre down to the full forwards so they can score; canny playmakers who can read and influence the course of play several moves ahead; rugged enforcers imposing bruising hips and shoulders on the other team’s star players; and innovators and visionaries who see ahead and reshape the game, its philosophy and impact for the future? In short, a truly winning mix.

Is it an accident that the Liberal Party looks like staving off what appeared to be certain defeat at the 2016 election with a good bit of list management and player development? Australia’s newest Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is a golden advertisement for mid-career entry to politics, nurtured by old hands in his party. Turnbull had ‘a calling to go into public life ever since I’ve known him’, according to his wife Lucy, as well as an abiding interest in political philosophy – so he undoubtedly knows his Weber.[16] The needy and autocratic Turnbull was on display during his period as Opposition leader between 2008 and 2009. It took active coaching and plenty of painful public learning to get him to The Lodge. In the run up to the 2004 election, then Prime Minister John Howard and NSW Liberal Party director Scott Morrison devised a plan to politically skill up the intending Member for Wentworth, including the installation of grizzled and wily NSW Liberal senator Bill Heffernan in Turnbull’s Point Piper home to show him how to operate on the campaign trail.[17] When the despairing Turnbull thought about leaving politics after his Opposition leadership imploded in 2009, it was Howard, taking the long view, who persuaded him to stay. It is hard to find a comparable example of this kind of human capital management in recent national Labor politics. With leadership quality an obvious swing factor – arguably, the swing factor – in federal election outcomes, this is a potential source of comparative political advantage that will be ignored at Labor’s peril.

Politics should be an honourable profession. It can be an honourable profession. We ‘occasional’ politicians, as Weber would put it, have to face up to the fact that we must pull our weight in making it, and keeping it, honourable – make it work better, lend strength and numbers to those in place who are already trying to, and in the process foster a culture of constructive rather than destructive intra- and inter-party competition. There are many, including among the better cadres, who have the professional political skills and experience to help turn talented mid-career political tyros into effective representatives. It is the responsibility of us all not to leave the practice of politics so overwhelmingly to others, but instead to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, What about me? What have I done? What can I bring? What will I do?


[1] Marianne Weber, Max Weber: A Biography, with an introduction by Guenther Roth, translated from the German and edited by Harry Zohn (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1988), 520; originally published as Max Weber. Ein Lebensbild (1926).

[2] Max Weber, ‘Politics as a Vocation’, in Max Weber, From Max Weber: essays in sociology, edited, with an introduction by HH Gerth & C Wright Mills with a new preface by Bryan S Turner (Milton Park: Routledge, 2009), 115; originally ‘Politik als Beruf’ published in 1919 by Duncker & Humboldt, Munich.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 115-6.

[5] Ibid., 116.

[6] Bryan S Turner, ‘Preface to the New Edition’ in Max Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, op. cit., xviii.

[7] Weber, ‘Politics as a Vocation’, op. cit., 246.

[8] Kim, Sung Ho, 'Max Weber', The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),, accessed 17 October 2015.

[9] Weber, ‘Politics as a Vocation’, op. cit., 107.

[10] Ibid., 707.

[11] Letter from Max Weber to Carl Petersen, Munich, April 14 1920, in Bruce B Frye, ‘A Letter From Max Weber’, Journal of Modern History, 39, 2 (June 1967), 123.

[12] Frye, ibid., 122.

[13] Edith Hanke, ‘“Max Weber’s Desk is now my Altar”: Marianne Weber and the intellectual heritage of her husband’, History of European Ideas, 35, 3 (2009), 349.

[14] Weber, ‘Politics as a Vocation’, op. cit., 83.

[15] Rosa Prince, ‘What is Andy Burnham’s experience of the private sector? Two years as a trade journalist’, Telegraph, 22 June 2015,, accessed 22 October 2015.

[16] Lucy Turnbull, interview with Belinda Hawkins, Australian Story, 21 September 2015,, accessed 22 October 2015.

[17] Pamela Williams, ‘Taking Down Tony Abbott: how Malcolm Turnbull staged a coup’, Australian, 21 October 2015.

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