Max Weber’s discussion of charisma in political leadership, which extends to other forms of leadership, is most associated with his 1919 lecture ‘Politics as a Vocation (Calling)’ and is also discussed in a more general sociological way in his master piece Economy and Society (Chapter XIV ‘Charisma and its Transformations’, unfinished at the time of his death in 1920 .
The obvious way that people get this wrong is in the alarmingly widespread assumption that when Weber talks about charismatic leaders he is thinking of a Hitler or Stalin like figure, some totalitarian dictator using a state enforced cult if personality. Weber evidently died before they came to power, but their examples still leap to mind when the topic comes up. We might think that Weber was referring to phenomena which anticipate modern totalitarianism, like the God-Emperors of Ancient Rome. That is part of what he was thinking of, but he also meant democratic leaders. In the lecture he refers to William Ewart Gladstone the British Prime Minister who dominated British liberalism in the Nineteenth Century, and who was a European wide symbol of liberalism and democracy. Gladstone became known as the ‘People’s William’ because of the great crowds who attended his election speeches. In the book, Weber refers to Pericles, the most famous figure in Ancient Athenian democracy. One of his speeches as recorded, or imagined, (the two were not very clearly distinguished in the Ancient world) by his contemporary the historian Thucydides, is still well known as a great example of political oratory.
Weber thought that in the modern world traditional forms of authority (or the legitimisation of authority) had given way to bureaucratic-rational forms, which had advantages but threatened to undermine legitimacy since rationality is a form of action, or understanding, rather than a reason to do something or adhere to a particular value. Weber was a liberal and a democrat, without any doubt, who emphasised the necessity of personal charisma in politics, preferring direct election of a strong president as the basis of a democratic system, as a way of encouraging a charismatic element in democracy. It is a matter of discussion whether or not this is the best form of democracy, but it is certainly not a proposal for totalitarianism.
People do not always get Weber wrong, even at a relatively popular level. The current CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer, apparently referred to Weber’s writing on charisma in dealing with some problems he had at Microsoft with the transition from his famous predecessor Bill Gates. Whoever becomes CEO of Apple after Steve Jobs will probably have an even bigger problem, and would also benefit from reading Weber.
I am disturbed to say, however, that some highly competent academics in political theory do get Weber wrong. This can mean ‘liberal’ theorists who take the trouble of studying Marx at first hand as an ‘egalitarian’ thinker and but rely on vague impressions of Weber. This also reflects the transition in meaning of the term ‘liberal’. In academic political theory circles, certainly in Analytic philosophy and anyone who practices Normative Theory (the Analytic mode in political theory), liberal now usually appears as part of the phrase ‘egalitarian liberal’ which is really a social democratic way of thinking, which sometimes brings Marx into the ‘liberal’ fold. Very peculiar.