Review of Ibraham and Wunsch’s Political Leadership, Nations and Charisma

Political Leadership cover Vivian Ibraham and Margit Wunsch (eds.), Political Leadership, Nations and Charisma


Reviewed by Jerome Braun


Abstract: This book describes the ramifications of Max Weber’s concept of charisma for understanding the sources of legitimacy for political authority, both in traditional societies and in modern societies that rely heavily on political propaganda.  The introduction by John Breuilly is particularly useful.  The ultimate usefulness of this book is to illustrate when charisma is self-justifying, and when its effectiveness is dependent on other factors.  The use of examples of charismatic leaders in the past and in more recent history serves well to show the usefulness of this concept for understanding political history.

Keywords: Charisma; Community; Leadership; Max Weber; National Character; Nationalism; Political Authority; Propaganda

Review of Vivian Ibraham and Margit Wunsch (eds.), Political Leadership, Nations and Charisma (Routledge, 2012), 208 pages, £85.00


Reviewed by Jerome Braun



This book edited by Vivian Ibrahim and Margit Wunsch puts together essays from credible experts that put in context a variety of manifestations of both personal and institutional charisma in modern settings.  The ultimate frame of reference is Max Weber’s distinction between traditional, legal-rational, and charismatic sources of authority in society.

To set the context for this book’s discussion of the modern world of political propaganda, let it be understood that though wishful thinking can and does occur in traditional societies, modern, anonymous societies with well-developed means of public communications are more likely to develop the projected charisma from followers upon leaders. There is also the institutional charisma of office that often results in respect for the office more than for the holder of the office, especially when the laws governing the office are effective and restrain the holder of the office from doing too much mischief, though of course this occurs in traditional as well as modern societies.

The introduction by John Breuilly on Weber’s concept of legitimate authority (really social domination) makes clear such distinctions relevant to historical accounts as charismatic leadership in opposition movements and charismatic leadership in regimes in power.  There is also as he points out the institutional charisma of nationalism that justifies state formation, but not necessarily loyalty to particular leaders who may be evaluated according to cultural ideals (e.g., national character) that underlie this nationalism. These leaders also often attempt propaganda campaigns that justify loyalty to them as either embodying these ideals, or as creators through their own virtues of new ideals (the original religious justification for charisma is based on this very claim).  The modern politics of such claims in historical context make up the content of this book.

Breully concludes his chapter with what is illustrated in the rest of this book:

Charismatic leadership in the pre-modern world was endemic, combining magic,

 religion, military prowess and personal relationships, and standing in a perpetual if

tense relationship with forms of traditional power.  Charismatic leadership in the modern world is more occasional and crisis ridden, in a destructive rather than tense relationship

with legal-rational domination.  Charismatic projection has become ubiquitous, almost as

if the projection of charismatic leadership becomes a substitute for its absence as a form

of domination (p. 20).

            Part I on ‘Nations and Charisma’ includes chapters on the charisma of the nation, charisma and the founding of nations by heroic figures, and a final chapter on leadership, national character, and charisma.  Part II is on the cult of the leader and the role of the masses with chapters on the cult of the hero in Risorgimento Italy, Abraham Lincoln as republican hero, a chapter on Hitler and Mussolini, and then a chapter on Nasser of Egypt.  Part III is on charisma in the present day with chapters on the present-day influence of Atatűrk on Turkey, of Jörg Haider on Austria, and of Mandela on South Africa.   Ultimately the usefulness of this book is to illustrate when charisma is self-justifying, and when its effectiveness is dependent on other factors.   One can also ask whether it is always a malign force or whether it can serve democracy.

            In Part I, there is the chapter on ‘The Charisma of Nations’ with its emphasis on claims to being a community of virtue and undying faith, politics as a popular movement of collective will, and nationalism as a new world order of ‘purified’ nations, just as the following chapter on ‘Charisma and Founding Fathers’ will be of interest for those concerned with the overlap between secular and religious messianism.  In the next chapter on “Leadership, National Character and Charisma” Hedva Ben-Israel makes clear:

In other words, national leadership becomes charismatic through the human

need of the collectivity of followers to see their own idealised self, which

is personified in their leader.  This differs from plain obedience and legitimate

authority.  In addition it differs from the attribution of divine power to kings

which distances them from the people rather than making them representatives of

their followers (p. 52).

While Max Weber emphasises charismatic leaders who are different from ordinary people, Ben-Israel emphasises how in the modern world they are projections of their followers’ fantasies, and the personification of the nation’s values in a Durkheimian sense.

In the chapters that follow the stories of Garibaldi, Lincoln, Mussolini, Hitler, Nasser, Atatűrk, Haider, and Mandela reveal through history, though less through analytical categorization of a sociological sort, as to the meaning of community and its relation to its leaders in our time.  They all reveal the paradox of leadership implying emotional closeness, while having actual emotional, and physical, distance.

The contexts of leadership are what can be learned from these chapters.  For example, Garibaldi was the hero who rose above his self-interest by practicing self-restraint, while Napoleon III expected the mass of people to exercise self-restraint to serve the audacity and vision of the leader.  Mussolini, who distrusted his subordinates and micromanaged his government, nevertheless served at the pleasure of the king.  Hitler bribed many of the officials of his government with secret payments, but also relied on the audacity of the German military tradition, that worked in the 19th century, in order to take it to absurd lengths by offering an all-or-nothing attitude toward attaining national glory, an attitude that reflected psychological weaknesses of the leader, but ultimately of the followers as well, which perhaps can be related, I would assume, to their ‘authoritarian’ personalities.

In conclusion, in a small-scale traditional society, the personal characteristics of leaders that are the source of their charisma can be known and therefore judged though social relationships, often face-to-face, or tempered by gossip networks where the reliability of the sources of gossip can also be judged.  This is harder to do in mass societies.   The historical examples recounted in this book are useful, as is the Weberian-based theoretical structure developed in the Introduction.  I personally would like to see a more full-scale development of psychological explanations for the rationalities and irrationalities of modern nationalism, but that is a theme for another book.  This book is a good start for history lovers, and for those who like Weberian concepts to be illustrated and amplified by historical examples.

Further Reading

Jerome Braun, Democratic Culture and Moral Character: A Study in Culture and Personality (Springer, 2013)

Charles Lindholm, The Anthropology of Religious Charisma: Ecstasies and Institutions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism (Polity, 2010)

Bernard Yack, Nationalism and the Moral Psychology of Community (University of Chicago Press, 2012)

Raphael Falco, “Charisma and Tragedy: An Introduction” in Theory, Culture & Society vol. 10, n. 3 (June, 1999), pp. 71-98.

Bryan Turner, “Warrior Charisma and the Spiritualization of Violence” in Body & Society vol. 9 n. 4 (December, 2003), pp. 93-108.

Jerome BraunJerome Braun is known for his writing in interdisciplinary social science, with some emphasis on culture and personality and on democracy from a cross-cultural perspective.  He was a Research Student in Industrial Relations at the London School of Economics, that resulted in his book The Humanized Workplace: A Psychological, Historical, and Practical Perspective (Praeger, 1995).  He also wrote To Break Our Chains: Social Cohesiveness and Modern Democracy (Brill, 2011).  His most recent book is one Springer solicited him to write, Democratic Culture and Moral Character: A Study in Culture and Personality (Springer, 2013). He is a Visiting Scholar at Loyola University, Chicago, Dept. of Sociology for 2014.

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