In 1917, when Europe seemed to lie in ruins, Max Weber wrote an influential essay with the misleadingly dull title “Parliament and Government in a Reconstructed Germany.” In it he drew attention to the outbreak of “Caesarism” in nineteenth-century Europe, taking Otto von Bismarck as the prime example of a modern Caesar for Germany (and indeed for the entire continent). How brilliantly, according to Weber, the old Junker had reduced Parliament to a rubber stamp, what devastating use he had made of emergency legislation and popular appeals, how ruthlessly he had expanded the power of Germany and consolidated his own.
You might think that Weber goes on to tell us what a harmful thing this modern Caesarism is and how Parliament and the rule of law must be strengthened as bulwarks against its perils. And he does, but then he starts off on a new and more disquieting tack. Isn’t it possible, he muses, that demagoguery is actually inherent in modern democratic suffrage, just as it was in Periclean Athens? Apart from demagogos, ancient Greek had a dozen other words to describe “people-flattery” of one sort or another. Surely mass democracy had a tendency to Caesarism:
Every kind of direct popular election of the supreme ruler and, beyond that, every kind of political power that rests on the confidence of the masses and not of parliament…lies on the road to these “pure” forms of Caesarist acclamation. In particular, this is true of the position of the President of the United States, whose superiority over parliament derives from his (formally) democratic nomination and election.
When traveling the United States in the election year of 1904, Weber had been much impressed by Teddy Roosevelt’s boisterous campaigning style.
The miracle ingredient by which the demagogos acquires and retains power is what Weber calls “charisma.” It is Weber who first borrowed from the Epistles of Saint Paul the Greek word for “the gift of God’s grace” and gave it a new, entirely secular twist. But even his use of the term retains a heaven-sent aura. The man with charisma is “meant to be.” He comes to fulfill the destiny of the nation; he is the Man on the White Horse in the Book of Revelation. Hegel wrote, when he caught sight of Napoleon riding through Jena the day before the great battle against the Prussian army in 1806, that he had just seen “this World-Soul riding out of town.” That’s charisma.
Curiously then, Weber, this infinitely thoughtful and skeptical observer of human affairs, had come to agree with the mountebank Napoleon III—who named himself emperor of France in 1852—that “the nature of democracy is to personify itself in a man.” When he was consulted about the writing of the Weimar Constitution in 1918–1919, he proposed the direct election of the German president. Charismatic leadership by a single man, he maintained, was essential to cement the people’s loyalty and persuade them to accept the dull impersonal weight of modern bureaucracy, which was both universal and inescapable. Yes, there must also be vigorous political parties and accountability to Parliament. But a dollop of charisma was indispensable.
This might be described as the Weber Wobble, and an apparent exception to the general thesis for which he is celebrated: that the modern world is characterized by a turning away from magical ways of thinking, the once-for-all Entzauberung, or disenchantment. He recognized the necessity of charisma, but he remained uneasy and suspicious of it. He died a year later, in 1920, of the Spanish flu during the great pandemic, aged only fifty-six. If he had lived a couple of years longer, to witness Mussolini’s March on Rome, he would have been uneasier still.
In Men on Horseback, David A. Bell, a professor of history at Princeton, takes Weber’s conjecture a stage further. Democracies, he points out, are particularly suspicious of charismatic leaders:
Yet, paradoxically, the longing for such leaders acquired new importance, and a distinct new shape, during the very same period that witnessed the first stirrings of modern democracy: the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
It was during that period of extraordinary intellectual ferment and then in the great revolutions that washed across much of the Western world between 1775 and 1820 that the powerful forms of political charisma we are familiar with today emerged. The coming of democracy transformed the relationship between the people and their leaders, and the personal magnetism of the leader electrified that relationship. Far from representing a backsliding toward older forms of government, the new Caesar, adored by the masses and personifying the new nation, was intrinsic to the modern world.
In fact, one might argue, it is only in our own time that we can see most clearly how it all works. The leader’s rallies, his broadcasts, his photo opportunities, his tweets—these do not simply decorate the serious business of governing; they are part and parcel of it. True, in the past and perhaps in the present too, charismatic leaders have often threatened constitutional orders, but they were crucial to the initial creation of those orders, not only by engineering the rupture with the ancien régime but also by bonding the public to this strange new world. The charismatic leader breaks the rules not just because, he claims, the rules are harmful to the people, but because breaking the rules shows that he has charisma; he is beyond good and evil, and beyond a lot of other boring stuff too.
As Weber writes elsewhere:
In order to do justice to their mission, the holders of charisma, the master as well as his disciples and followers, must stand outside the ties of this world, outside of routine occupations, as well as outside the routine obligations of family life.
Charisma is both revolutionary and unstable: “It can only tolerate, with an attitude of complete emotional indifference, irregular, unsystematic, acquisitive acts.” The charismatic can often be identified by the absence of a certain normal human pulse. After a fractious meeting with Winston Churchill in 1914, Henry James said to Violet Asquith that “it had brought home to me—very forcibly, very vividly—the limitations by which men of genius obtain their ascendancy over mankind.”
To demonstrate his thesis, Bell takes five of the most memorable leaders from the revolutionary period: Pasquale Paoli of Corsica, George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Toussaint Louverture—liberator of Haiti and leader of the greatest slave revolt in history after Spartacus—and Simón Bolívar, who led the northern half of South America to liberation from its Spanish masters. Four fifths of the book is given over to beguiling portraits of this extraordinary quintet, whose reputations were to become entangled in a glittery web of global hero worship: Louverture, for example, being known both as the Black Napoleon and the Washington of the Antilles, Bolívar delighting in being called the Washington of South America. Bell constantly stresses that the cultural setting in which these heroes operated was distinctly modern. The panegyrists of old-style monarchs would never have portrayed them as interacting with the public in the intimate style in which James Boswell, in his 1760s travelogue, describes Paoli meeting ordinary Corsicans.
I’m not sure this is wholly true. Monarchs such as Henri IV of France and Henry V of England have been depicted as sitting around the fire with their soldiers, just as Napoleon was. Bell also argues that charismatic authority could not be spread by personal contact alone: it depended on the printing press and the rise of literacy as well. In the eighteenth century a new novel-reading public emerged, all too liable to confuse the sentimental stories they read with real life. Denis Diderot claimed that the French were like children taken to the theater for the first time, unable to distinguish artifice from reality. They were thus easy prey for fake news peddled by public propagandists. But was this all as new as Bell implies? From medieval hagiographers to the autobiography of the emperor Augustus, self-promotion and a certain indifference to truth have always been the hallmarks of the charismatic’s PR operation, with or without the printing press. The full text of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti (Deeds of the Divine Augustus) was carved in stone in cities all over the Roman Empire.
Toward the end of Men on Horseback, Bell tells us that, unlike Weber,
I have little interest in charisma as an abstract, timeless, universal phenomenon. I have been concerned about how it took on a particular form in a particular time and place: the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Atlantic world.
Yet it would have been interesting to see him compare his charismatic leaders with earlier national liberators or would-be liberators whose legends have endured: Joan of Arc in France, William Wallace in Scotland, Owen Glendower in Wales, or Cola di Rienzo in Rome, whose memory burned bright enough five centuries later for Wagner to compose his early opera Rienzi, which so impressed the young Adolf Hitler. Nor are these tenacious tales simply epics of martial glory: Alfred the Great remains revered as a lawgiver and founder of primary schools for children of all social classes except serfs. During the Covid pandemic, I have found myself reading the infection statistics from the Hywel Dda University Health Board—Hywel Dda, or Howel the Good, being a tenth-century Welsh king famous for his liberal legal code, which gave strong recognition to women’s rights.
Bell’s five heroes did have some remarkable Boswells, though, including, as noted, Boswell himself. Few travelogues have exuded the easy charm of the journal he wrote during his trip to Corsica in 1765 to meet the great Paoli. You come away as bewitched as Boswell was by the confiding warmth of Paoli, who at the age of thirty had succeeded his father Giacinto as “general” of the dirt-poor island, with more or less unlimited executive powers. Pasquale had pacified the warring clans, founded a press and a university, and given the islanders a spanking new constitution. It was one of the first in Europe and was written with input from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who declared in The Social Contract, on scant evidence, that Corsica was “the one country in Europe which is fit to receive laws.” High praise indeed, since Rousseau considered it the greatest problem in politics “to find a form of government that sets the law above man.” Bell points out, however, that while Boswell was personally enchanted by Paoli and saw him as “the father of a nation,” he was not too bedazzled to recognize the reality. In theory Corsica was “a complete and well-ordered democracy,” but in practice, he observed,
the power of Paoli knows no bounds. It is high treason so much as to speak against, or calumniate him; a species of despotism founded, contrary to the principles of Montesquieu, on the affection of love.
Boswell followed Dr. Johnson’s advice to “give us as many anecdotes as you can,” and his Journal became a best seller. So much so that when France moved to take over the island in 1768 and the radical Whigs pressed the British government to intervene on Paoli’s behalf, Lord Holland, paymaster general of the forces, declared, “Foolish as we are, we cannot be so foolish as to go to war because Mr. Boswell has been in Corsica.” When Paoli began his repeated exiles in London, from 1769 until his death in 1807, Boswell and the Johnson circle stuck by him, and Paoli makes frequent appearances in The Life of Samuel Johnson, in which Boswell develops the delicious mixture of anecdote and observation that had made his name with the Corsica book.
Paoli was a fine-looking fellow. So was George Washington, six foot three in his white stockings and not nearly as stiff in private talk or correspondence as he could appear in public. The same could not be said of Toussaint Louverture. He was already in his late forties when he came to prominence, frail, short, and toothless—he had acquired the nickname “Sickly Stick.” And Napoleon, as we all know, was tubby and short with an unpleasant Corsican accent and, as a young man, flappy sidelocks that made him look like a sallow puppy. Bolívar was reputed to have been handsome when young, but in his later years of power he was described as short and meager, with a highly unprepossessing countenance, a harsh and disagreeable voice, and cold and forbidding manners.
Still, PR could make up for a lot. Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps depicts the handsome young general in his bicorne, fully in command of his rearing horse as he points onward to victory. In fact, Napoleon was said to roll around in the saddle like a ship in high seas, and when crossing the Alps the pass was so steep and icy that he had to stumble up it on a mule and slither down the other side on his bottom. David’s picture was later carefully adapted to depict Bolívar in the saddle crossing the High Andes.
Napoleon’s bulletins from the battlefield were so notoriously exaggerated that the expression “to lie like a bulletin” entered the language.* Bolívar, too, sent false reports of his victories to newspapers in London and elsewhere to counter any royalist sympathies that might be gaining ground. Even in preparing a revolutionary assault, PR was never to be forgotten. Francisco de Miranda, the hero of Bolívar’s youth, sailed from New York and landed on the coast of Venezuela in 1806, bringing with him not only guns and ammunition but also a printing press and linen handkerchiefs printed with portraits of himself and George Washington—the complete liberator’s campaign kit.
There is a danger—and Bell does not altogether avoid it—of exaggerating the importance of all this promotion and adulation and the interaction between the two. After all, these leaders were adored in the first place because they were genuine military heroes. Washington did cross the Delaware, Napoleon did cross the Alps, Bolívar did cross the High Andes. These and many other exploits were accomplished with dash and daring, brilliant organizational and tactical skills, and often miserably ill-clad and ill-trained soldiers. You might expect Toussaint’s slave army to have been a ragged and starving lot, but the Army of Italy of which Napoleon took command in 1796 at the age of twenty-six was also appallingly underequipped. Few of the men had boots, instead weaving their footwear out of straw, and many had no jackets or trousers. Yet we cannot ignore the fact that in desperate situations, these inspirational commanders resorted to extreme brutality as well. In Venezuela, Bolívar had eight hundred Spanish prisoners executed in cold blood. In Syria, at Jaffa, Napoleon had 1,500–2,000 prisoners led out to the beach and then shot, bayoneted, or drowned.
The liberator could shape any sort of constitution he fancied, instruct his people how to sustain whatever political arrangements he preferred. What then does he do? Here we come to a total chasm between Washington and Bell’s other four subjects. When the fighting was done, Washington publicly and deliberately resigned his commission and retired to private life. He was then chosen as president, served two terms, and retired again (to be succeeded by short, balding John Adams, who had less charisma than a tree stump). Washington resisted the call to proclaim himself monarch. He sought only to serve the more or less democratic political culture in which he was reared, and which was taken for granted in all thirteen colonies. But the other four? Let Bolívar speak for them all:
I am convinced deep in my bones, that only a skillful despotism can rule America…. We are the abominable compound of those tiger-like hunters who came to America to shed blood and to crossbreed with their victims before sacrificing them, and then to mix the impure offspring of those liaisons with the offspring of slaves torn out of Africa. With such physical mixtures, with such moral elements, how can we place laws above heroes and principles above men?
In one way or another, Paoli, Napoleon, and Louverture expressed much the same attitude, though Toussaint put it to his followers more gently: “I have always treated you as my children.” They all accepted that their people were simply too immature, too unruly, too quarrelsome to rule themselves.
The Americans, and the British from whom they had inherited their political culture, were different. “If I had been in America,” Napoleon said, “I would have willingly been a Washington, and I would have deserved little praise for it, since I don’t see how it would have been possible to do otherwise.” On St. Helena, he told his own Boswell, Emmanuel de las Cases, that if he had successfully invaded England, he would have governed the country as a good liberal. But you could do nothing with the French except give them orders.
And what did these leaders leave behind? During the French Revolution Paoli briefly returned to power, supported by the British, but when the British withdrew, the French returned. Napoleon was not inclined to restore his erstwhile hero, whom he regarded as soft and too democratic in his ways, and so Corsica remains to this day a region of France. Haiti did eventually achieve independence, but only because Napoleon’s troops died of yellow fever by the thousands. Napoleon restored slavery in France’s other remaining possessions in the Caribbean—so much for the great liberator. There is also the contention, still hotly debated, that on his orders thousands of captured Haitians were gassed by sulfur dioxide extracted from the island’s volcanoes, apart from the thousands more who were killed by orthodox methods. At all events, the subsequent history of Haiti, potentially the richest island in the West Indies, is a ghastly succession of massacres, coups, bankruptcies, and invasions by every colonial power you can think of.
In Latin America, Bolívar’s vision of Gran Colombia broke up into no less than six squabbling, unstable states. As for France, it took more than a century of revolution and coups d’état before the country settled permanently into democracy. These regimes, which had been established with such casual cruelty and indifference to loss of life, did not manage to last.
Charisma was not enough. What was lacking in all four cases outside the US was any serious intention to deploy that charisma in the construction of a lasting constitutional order. To start with, there was no succession planning. Napoleon abdicated twice in favor of his infant son, but no one acknowledged the poor little king of Rome. As Weber remarks, “Everywhere the problem of succession has been the Achilles heel of purely Caesarist rule.”
Could it all have been different? Could the hard-won charisma have been crystallized into effective and enduring institutions—a parliament that really did have power, genuinely free elections, a constitutional court whose rulings were respected? Weber also identifies “hereditary charisma” (Erbcharisma), in which the radiance of the revolution is transmitted down the generations of a ruling family—say, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi—and “office charisma” (Amtcharisma), by which even a totally unglamorous president like Adams—or François Hollande—is bathed in the aura of the office. Bell doesn’t explore these possibilities, merely repeating that charisma has become an inescapable feature of modern political life.
In Revolutionary Constitutions (2019), the Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman ventures into this other terrain and brings back some fascinating results. He offers half a dozen modern examples of post-revolutionary constitution-making for the long term: the India of Gandhi and Nehru, the South Africa of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, the revival of democracy in Italy after Mussolini, the Fourth and Fifth Republics in France, Lech Wałęsa and Solidarity in Poland, then shorter pieces on Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, David Ben-Gurion in Israel, and the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Each of these chapters is rich in detail, leaving the reader deeply impressed by the patience and persistence of leaders like Mandela and Nehru, who saw from the start that winning power was not enough, and that they needed to lay foundations that would endure beyond their generation. Bolívar and Napoleon would have regarded it as absurd to expect any sort of stable democracy to emerge in countries with such vast, diverse, and uneducated populations as India or South Africa. But it happened.
Where Ackerman is critical rather than admiring, for example of Wałęsa’s reluctance to push for full independence and of Suu Kyi’s willingness to come to terms with the generals, I found myself wanting to defend their caution. How hard it is for us at this distance to calculate the risks of provoking violent and overwhelming military interventions, of which they had had such ghastly recent experience. As Ackerman says, “It is not for me, sitting in the comfort of my office at Yale, to undertake a pseudoscientific ‘cost-benefit analysis’ that points conclusively to the ‘correct’ decision.” One can defend Wałęsa for reasons stretching beyond Poland: by his conciliatory tactics he helped muffle the alarm bells in the Kremlin and made it easier for “velvet revolutions” to spread across Central and Eastern Europe.
What Bell and Ackerman between them show is that Caesarism is not a historical necessity but a conscious choice. It is always possible to reclaim the system from the overblown pretensions of a demagogue by voting him out, by shouting him down, by outlawing his illegal acts, and, not least, by offering better solutions to the grievances that brought him to power. In any case, our modern Caesars have not crossed the Rubicon or the Delaware—they have mostly been exempt from military service for one reason or another. What may have first looked like charisma is ultimately revealed as mere glitz. From Clement Attlee to Angela Merkel, it is often the duller metal that turns out to be the purer gold.