Between Two Laws – Max Weber

The title of this blog refers to a letter-to-the-editor written by Max Weber known as Between Two Laws.

Weber’s ‘Between Two Laws’, published in Feb of 1916, serves principally as a justification of Germany’s involvement in the war and as a criticism of pacifism. In addition it includes several interesting reflections on the relationship between political power and culture, and between religious ethics and politics.

Weber’s central argument in this piece is that Germany had an obligation to enter the war for its own sake as well as for the sake of other nations. This obligation, premised upon Germany’s status as a powerful state, is not couched in terms of concerns for prosperity, freedom, or safety, but in terms of  culture: Germany should fight to ‘determine the character of culture in the future’. The failure of Germany to do so would lead to a Europe shared out between ‘Russian regulation’ and the ‘conventions of English speaking ‘society’’; a result for which Germany alone would be bear responsibility because only it –not Norway, Switzerland etc. – had the power to sway the outcome. Germany’s involvement in WWI is therefore characterised as a ‘historical necessity’ ‘imposed by fate’.

Power ‘injurious to culture’

According to Weber, it is only within communities that have abandoned all ambition for political power that ‘other virtues may flourish’ – virtues such of the arts, as well as a democratic culture; as such, he argues that it would actually be in Germany’s interest to renounce power and organise itself into ‘politically impotent cantons’ modeled after Switzerland. However, Weber cynically states, ‘then we should wait and see’ for how long other nations would allow the cultural idyll to survive; and he follows this by arguing that, in fact, the culturally superior Switzerland depends upon German power to deter threats to its sovereignty. Countries that benefit from German power while criticising it and espousing pacifism are branded pharisaic. The power of Germany, then, is characterised as a costly burden, but alas, a necessary one.

Religious ethics or world politics

The final argument in this letter reflects upon the relation between religious ethics and ‘worldly laws’. Weber’s take is that:

The New Testament should either be left out of such discussions entirely or it must be taken seriously … Anyone who has even a penny of investment income which others have to pay directly or indirectly, anyone who owns any durable goods or consumes any commodity produced not by his own sweat but by that of others, lives off the operation of that loveless and unpitying economic struggle for existence which bourgeois phraseology designates as ‘peaceful cultural work’ (Weber, 1994: 78).

He continues this theme by propounding that Christians should renounce all relationship with the ‘worldly’ “laws” from which material benefits are born, extending this renunciation to include those “laws” of the social world ‘devoted to the beauty, dignity, and honour … of man as a creature of this earth’. Everyone who does not commit to a full rejection of the benefits of modern society is to be ‘bound by the laws of this world’ including the ‘inevitability of war’, and should, to the best of their ability, fulfil the ‘demands of the day’ within the circumstances fated them.


To summarise the three main themes in this letter:

  • Power is burdensome but necessary. It harms those who wield it and obliges them to act.
  • Power is opposed to (bourgeois) culture; culture does not thrive beneath it, yet cannot survive without it.
  • Compromise is incompatible with ‘high’ ethical principles; if principles are to be held they should be committed to with absolute consistency.


There is some difficulty determining the sincerity of Weber’s statements in this text because they were written during a war. For this reason it is perhaps tempting to explain the text as propaganda. No doubt Weber had political intentions in writing to the public, but nonetheless, many of the letter’s themes and statements are echoed elsewhere in Weber’s corpus; and the assessment (Paul Honigsheim’s) of Weber’s disposition as one of ‘tragedy’, ‘nevertheless’ are imbued throughout: alas, the ‘law’ of the power pragma determines the ‘fate’ of the world; nevertheless, this one must accept and work within its boundaries.

As an aside, this sense of the regrettable but inevitable pervades Weber’s work and seems (to me) to suggest a flaw in Weber’s very well-known project for ‘value free’ science; for while Weber presents his assessment as realistic as opposed to idealistic I am suspicious that this ‘realism’ coincides with Weber’s ideals (consider Weber’s defence of capitalism as ‘inevitable’ in the 1904 Objectivity preamble, and his positive defence elsewhere of the virtues of freedom and autonomy in the economic sphere).

In the case of the present text Weber opens up several avenues, which if chosen, could avoid ‘fate’ (at least temporarily): the first is his suggestion that Germany could renounce its ambition for power. This alternative is, however, given the provisos: only if Germany could accept that it be overrun by England and Russian in the near future; or if the German people can accept the ‘disgrace’ that would come from their about-face.

Weber provides the second alternative to ‘fate’ in his reflections on the relation between power and the religious, where one can choose between a deep religious ethic or – in the best case- a more worldly humanist ethic that is bound to the nation state. This position can be characterised as an either/or modification of Luke 20:25: give therefore to Caesar what is Caesar’s OR give to God what is God’s. The point Weber appears to be arguing is that any compromise of an ethic that attempts to transcend the ‘facts of the day’ sullies it irrevocably: one cannot be both above something and a part of it. There is also an aspect to this argument which extends deeper than politics or economics: the choice between human culture or religious commitment and the rejection of that culture in toto – this is a theme I plan to return to in the following months.

Rather than war, Weber uses the example of the ‘pitiless’ capitalism to further his point, stating that any benefit that is enjoyed as result of exploitation (in Marx’s sense of surplus value) corrupts those who claim to oppose it. The difficulty posed by this example (if its premises are accepted) is that it would be virtually impossible to avoid being implicated in exploitation. It is questionable whether even a traveling religious figure (such as Tolstoy in his final weeks whom Weber refers to respectfully) could survive without thes­­e benefits. In any case, as with his alternatives to a German power state, the choice is framed as one between the near impossible or foolish, and the level-headed acceptance of ‘inevitable’ fate.

Viewed in this way, Between Two Laws perhaps serves as lens into Weber’s more strictly sociological works: because while Weber probably intended this text as ‘soft’ propaganda, attempting to make the best of a war already underway (hence inevitable), it nonetheless contains many of the arguments and tendencies Weber has expressed in his more disinterested works.

Max Weber 1994, ‘Between Two Laws’ in Weber: Political Writings, (eds) Lassman P, Speirs R, Cambridge University Press.

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