Review of Max Weber’s Theory of the Modern State


Andreas Anter, Max Weber’s Theory of the Modern State

Reviewed by Christopher Adair-Toteff

Abstract: This is a review of Max Weber’s Theory of the Modern State in which Andreas Anter lays out Weber’s conception of the modern state. Working from fragmentary sources Anter reconstructs it by placing Weber in a long line of German political and legal theorists and explaining how Weber’s notions of order, force, chance, and legitimacy serve as some of the primary factors for an action oriented and non-substantive theory of the state.

Keywords: Max Weber, State, Andreas Anter, political theory

Review of Max Weber’s Theory of the Modern State: Origins, Structure and Significance. By Andreas Anter. Translated by Keith Tribe. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan. 261 pp. ISBN 978-1-137-36489-0. Hbk. £ 60.00

Reviewed by Christopher Adair-Toteff

German scholars have been able to study Andreas Anter’s Max Webers Theorie des modernen Staates for almost twenty years. First published as his thesis in 1995, it was reprinted the following year and has been used by many of those who are interested in Max Weber’s political thinking. It is now available as Max Weber’s Theory of the Modern State; a translation by Keith Tribe of a revision of the second edition. This translation will undoubtedly earn an even larger audience for Anter’s book.

Anter’s approach to the subject has many strengths; one is identifying what he calls Weber’s “yes—but” type of argumentation. Weber often makes an assertion and then immediately moves to qualify it (118).  Anter applies this to his own account of Weber’s work, demonstrating that Weber’s “theory” of the modern state does not actually exist as a fully fledged theory, it is fragmentary and unfinished. Anter argues that Johannes Winckelmann’s attempt to “complete” Weber’s sociology of the state was doomed to failure because it was not just fragmentary but contained ambiguities and contradictions (1-3, 146, 214, 216). Yet, he agrees with Winckelmann that it is well worth investigating. The subtitle of the book is “Origins, Structure and Significance”. Two of these themes are found continuously throughout the work, but “structure” is not. Instead, by “structure” Anter means that he will “elaborate, structure and compare” the various perspectives that make up Weber’s fragmentary theory of the modern state. He admits that this is a challenge, but he believes that Weber’s theory is not only of historical interest, but it serves as a departure point for many contemporary theorists, including Carl Schmitt and Wilhelm Hennis.

Anter repeatedly refers to Hennis, his late mentor, who often wrote of the pressing need to place Weber within his historical frame work. Anter does an admirable job in doing this by locating Weber’s thinking within the context of such major figures as Nietzsche, but also with lesser known political thinkers such as Friedrich von Treitschke and Friedrich Gottl. He spends considerable effort to demonstrating how much Weber relied on his close friend and colleague, Georg Jellinek (6, 14-15, 19-20, 40, 86, 174-177, 218). Unfortunately, Anter almost undermines his case for Weber’s innovation and importance by his repeated claims that Weber drew on Jellinek and others.

Weber often clarified what something is by demonstrating what it is not, and his “theory” of the modern state is a good example of this method. Anter notes that Weber contended that the state is not something “material, monolithic and substantive”; it is not organic, and it is not a collective. Because the state is not a thing, there is no point in inquiring about the “best state”.  Weber is not especially concerned with the origins of the state, nor does he have any use for talk about its ends or purposes (82). Instead, his interest is in its functions and the primary function of a state is to maintain order or, as Anter correctly points out, “orders”. It does this by the threat, or the actual use, of force (158, 86, 25). In Politik als Beruf Weber famously defined the state as having the monopoly on legitimate force (Weber 1992: 158-159). Anter noted that force has a long history in political theory, but he argues that it was Weber who made it the focal point of the modern state.  Anter insists that Weber was not an apologist for force. Instead, it was a simple recognition of how human beings interact, both at the individual level but more so at the state level. Anter minimizes Weber’s preoccupation with force in international relations and concentrates instead on “the internal political dimension of force”. It was the threat of force that held the state together by ensuring obedience.  Weber maintained that without force, there could be no state (25-29). He also recognized that the state’s hold on the monopoly of force was often precarious and he knew that there were close connections among force, war, and violence. He rejected the idea of a world without force and he did not believe in a world governed by contracts (34-37). He was convinced of the inevitability of force and he often sounded pessimistic about the possible reduction of it. It is in this discussion that Anter helpfully places Weber in the German tradition of Fichte and Treitschke in seeing the importance of strength in the state as institution. For Weber, the state needed leadership, which was the striving after and the holding onto political power (42-43). One simply cannot try to evade discussions of state and power; if anything, Weber has shown that state and “rulership” (“Herrschaft”) are necessarily bound together, and that it is the latter which is the basis for the former (47). Anter has discussed what the modern state does, and what it is not, but does he explain what the state is? The answer is yes; however, it is embedded in the middle of his book and is short: the modern state is “action-oriented, anti-essentialist and empirically founded” (94). These are the three crucial traits which accurately capture Weber’s notion of the modern state.

Another strength is Anter’s examination of the relationship between the state and values. He argues that Weber never believed that one could separate the notion of the state from the issue of values; what he did believe was that it was imperative to ensure that people make their ultimate values clear to others and especially to themselves. For Weber, the state was an ultimate value because it made society possible, and the society that was his primary concern was the German state (102). Anter is persuasive in his claim that what Weber wrote before his lengthy illness is crucial to understanding his political thinking. Furthermore, he convincingly argues that there is no real break between before and after the breakdown; no “Copernican turn or Damascene moment” (106-114). This is not to suggest that there is no development; but that it was gradual. Weber crystallized his political thinking around the time of his 1896 Freiburg Inaugural lecture and then modified it throughout the rest of his life.

The final chapter is on the metaphor “the state as machine” and it is true that Weber often employs metaphors and that he frequently refers to the state as a “machine”. Anter locates Weber’s use of the state as machine as the last in a long history of the metaphor. But, he suggests that Weber was uneasy and ambivalent about using it because it implies a rigidity that he wanted to reject. Weber seemed to prefer using a different “metaphor”, that is, the “state as enterprise”. He argues that Weber’s conception of the state as machine is incoherent and that the “state as enterprise” better captures Weber’s conviction about the functioning of the state. Unfortunately, scholars were never really interested in this line of thinking and it ended in Germany around 1930 (198-207).

The book is not without a few flaws and Anter’s perplexing account of the relationship between the state and the law is one of them. He acknowledges that Weber was trained as a lawyer and that law plays a role in the governing of the state. However, Anter makes the rather startling claims that Weber “excluded law from his concept of the state” and that “Weber does not place great emphasis on the rule of law”. This is also surprising for several reasons: given the importance that Weber devoted to it in Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, that Anter details the great influence that Jellinek, the legal scholar had on Weber, and that Anter refers to Turner and Factor’s Max Weber. The Lawyer as Social Thinker.  In contrast to the rather superficial account of law, Anter provides a rather detailed analysis of Weber’s notion of “chance”. He correctly identifies it as a key concept and that Weber never provides a definition of it. Anter believes that Weber’s refusal to define the term has made it possible for commentators to see Weber in a variety of conflicting ways: as a “market liberal”, a “capitalist Kantian”, and an adherent of “Marx’s historical materialism” (92-93). However, he is incorrect to claim that it has not received sufficient attention. In his Max Weber Dictionary Richard Swedberg offered a rather detailed account of chance, noting that Weber uses it in two, interrelated ways: as “probability” and as “opportunity.”  Because social sciences cannot produce laws they can only offer probabilities. It is “chance” as a “sense of ‘probability’” that Anter dwells upon. However, he rejects the attempts to equate “chance” with “probability” and he notes that Weber’s approach contains ambivalence (91). This is one of many instances in which Anter finds ambivalence in Weber’s approaches. Other examples include his approach to values and even the state (146-147, 218). But, it is not so much that Weber is ambivalent about the nature of chance; it is that, as Swedberg has pointed out, Weber also uses “chance” as “opportunity” (Swedberg 2005: 184, 209-210). Swedberg explains that this sense is the market opportunities, profit opportunities, and exchange opportunities, and he contrasts that with the sense of “chance” as “probability”, which he beliefs is best captured by “likelihood”. The employment of “likelihood” renders Kelsen’s criticism of Weber’s notion of “chance” as “probability” moot and dispenses with his ridicule about degrees of a state (see 94-95).

Anter correctly believed that “chance” is a key Weberian concept, and even more so to believe that “legitimacy” is one. He rightly notes that it is the “axis of his theory of state” and that it is the “Archimedean point of his sociology of rule” (188, 52). He is justified in complaining that, like “chance”, Weber never defined “legitimacy”. Anter shifts his focus from legitimacy to the relationship between legitimacy and legality but he objects to those who believe that Weber equated “legitimacy” with “legality”. However, he also seems to believe that legality is the basis for a state’s legitimacy because he rejects the other two types of “Herrschaften”: traditional and charismatic rule. The first is rejected because it cannot be the basis for the modern institutional state and the second because it is too exceptional and fleeting (62-63). While Anter is justified in his assumptions about traditional “Herrschaft”, he may not be with regard to charismatic “Herrschaft”. Weber’s increasing understanding and his growing appreciation of the power of legitimate charisma is readily apparent in his later lectures and writings (Weber 1992: 160-161; Weber 2009: 93-100). Given its importance, it is unfortunate that the discussion of legitimacy is not more enlightening. In addition, this section includes one of the very few instances where the translation is puzzling. The heading to the section on legitimacy and legality is rendered as “Staring into the depths with a clear head”. This misses Anter’s point about trying “not to be dizzy over the abyss” “Schwindelfrei über dem Abgrund” (68, Anter 1996: 69). Keith Tribe is a highly respected translator and so this is a rare instance in which the book is not quite as good as it could be. However, these are minor shortcomings; Max Weber’s Theory of the Modern State is so good that it ought to be required reading for anyone who is interested in Weber’s political thinking. Anter is right that Weber often approaches his topics with a “yes—but”; regarding the quality of Anter’s book, there is no “but”—only a “yes”.


Anter, Andreas (1996) Max Webers Theorie des modernen Staates. Herkunft, Struktur und Bedeutung. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

Swedberg, Richard (2005) The Max Weber Dictionary. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Turner, Stephen and Factor, Regis (1994) Max Weber. Lawyer as Social Thinker. London: Routledge.

Weber, Max (1992) Wissenschaft als Beruf/Politik als Beruf.Herausgegeben von Wolfgang J. Mommsen und Wolfgang Schluchter in Zusammenarbeit mit Birgitt Morgenbrod. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck).

Weber, Max (2009) Allgemeine Staatslehre und Politik (Staatssoziologie). Herausgegeben von Gangolf Hübinger in Zusammenarbeit mit Andreas Terwey. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck).

Christopher Adair-Toteff is author of 20 articles and review essays on Max Weber as well as numerous publications on other German sociologists. He is author and translator of Sociological Beginnings, Liverpool University Press 2005, and Editor of Anthem Companion to Toennies and Anthem Companion to Troetsch, both forthcoming, as well as author of Fundamental Concepts in Max Weber’s Sociology of Religion, forthcoming from Palgrave-Macmillan. He is Fellow at the Center for Social and Political Thought, University of South Florida, and Honorary Senior Researcher, University of Kent.


Leave a Reply