by Max Weber
Max Weber began his scholarly career as an historian of the ancient world and grew into a wonder of diversified social science–a wonder that still holds good and justifies this year’s centennial celebration. In 1905 he published one of the most influential and provocative essays ever written: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. His thesis: that Protestantism, more specifically its Calvinist branches, promoted the rise of modern capitalism–that is, the industrial capitalism he knew from his native Germany. Protestantism did this, he said, not by easing or abolishing those aspects of the Roman faith that had deterred or constrained free economic activity (the prohibition of lending at interest, for example), nor by encouraging the pursuit of wealth, but by defining and sanctioning an ethic of everyday behavior that conduced to economic success, individually and for the community as a whole.
This pattern of economically successful behavior rested, ironically, on a belief in predestination. One could not win salvation by faith or deeds; that question had been decided for all from the beginning of time. But if that were so, why trouble to behave properly? Answer: because proper behavior was evidence of salvation.
What was proper behavior? Among other things, hard work, good work, honesty, seriousness, the thrifty use of resources and time. These virtues paid off and produced a new kind of businessman, one who aimed to live and work a certain way. It was the way of life and work that mattered; riches were at best a by-product. This way, moreover, was taught, learned and copied. It played a role in the shift of European business activity and success northward. Where once the names most closely linked to the victories of capitalism were Italian, now they were German, Dutch and English. As Weber showed, this way of life also accounted for the tenacious economic success of minority groups linked by religion, culture and family ties.
We have an excellent example of these links in the economic and intellectual performance of the Calvinist bourgeoisie of Alsace. I would stress the aspect of mind as well as matter, science as well as business, as does the anthropological historian Michel Hau, professor of Strasbourg, who offers a genealogical diagram of “Famous Scientists Coming from the Mulhouse Patriciate.” These “famous scientists” are in fact a stunning array of engineers, chemists, physicists, doctors and technically equipped manufacturers, numbers of them of international standing, generation after generation, several of them Nobel Prize winners, one of them designer, builder and manager of the world’s most famous symbol of masculine prowess, the Eiffel Tower.
The Alsatian bourgeousie families knew who they were and why. Listen to Madeleine Favre-Koechlin (two big Alsatian names) citing the business career of her father. In 1925 he was appointed to manage the factories of Dollfus-Mieg et Cie, a textile firm founded by some of his own collateral ancestors in 1800. The pool of Alsatian talent included hundreds of cousins, making family continuity feasible even in a world of intense technological requirements. And with knowledge went values and virtues: punctuality, simplicity, sobriety, honesty, zeal. “This morality”, Mlle. Favre-Koechlin recalled, “very Protestant, was always practiced and stressed by the men of my family, who saw in it the rule and health of the business.” Her father rejected the very idea of nepotism. He wanted competence and commitment above all. He deplored the lack of enterprise among the younger heirs. (He should also have deplored the failure to make the most of available female talent.) How did he know? By the fact that these young’uns were reluctant to move abroad and do a multi-year stage in foreign firms. This was Mulhousian custom. It was a great way to learn.
Because of Mulhouse’s situational ambiguity and the political fragmentation of the region, the city was able to establish itself as an independent commune, and only later did an aggressive, Bonapartist French republic swallow it. From the start it had drawn an influx of Dissenters, who found its uncertain political status hospitable. Most of these were Calvinist (Jansenist) Protestants of the Weberian type. This recruitment, with time, yielded prosperous industrial enterprises (textiles primarily) and a community-minded business elite. Jean Schlumberger, member of one of the most important of these business dynasties and himself a novelist of merit, wrote as follows of these entrepreneurs:
The virtue of these old bosses consisted above all in their Jansenist regularity. In the office from 8 in the morning to noon and from 1:30 to 7; no travel; no absences. . . . If one was to stay in business, one had to adopt this clockwork punctuality, which one could not think of violating without scandalizing the personnel and without a sort of impiety.1
The Schlumberger family, in its shifts of fortune, mirrored the political transformations of the Alsatian region in the context of larger economic developments. Like the other businessmen of the area, the Schlumbergers were réformés, Calvinist Protestants in a Lutheran and Catholic sea. Like the business entrepreneurs of Weber’s Protestant Ethic, they built their family fortune in trade and industry (the French in those days made little distinction between négociant and industriel), making and selling cotton cloth on the basis of putting-out and work in manufactories (workshops based on hand labor). Most of this cloth was intended for printing–indiennes, after the originals from India. This was what some historians have called proto-industry, the prelude to mechanization and mass production.
And indeed the Schlumbergers, exceptionally, moved beyond spinning, weaving and selling to the production of machines for the manufacture of first yarn and then cloth. They were not alone in this shift; the British in particular had taken the lead in this direction. Still, such a self-transformation was not simple in France, which had to start from scratch. That is, the French had to learn how to build the machines–invent them if necessary–because the British, in an effort to maintain monopoly, forbade the export of these devices. It was easier to visit England posing as travelers and entice British mechanics to better-paid jobs in France. The story told in the family is that one of the Schlumbergers brought back designs and plans by sewing in the lining of his cloak. One way or another, the family found ways to copy British inventions as needed, first for its own use and then for other textile dynasties in the region. This brought them a pioneering role in regional railways and in the French industrial revolution.
In time they changed, and yet they did not change. The family’s enrichment owed much to enterprise and nerve: They were, as we have seen, ready to take up new lines, new fields, unknown activities. They were much assisted in this by reciprocal ties of duty and affection, the one as important as the other. This undoubtedly promoted the availability of resources, which grew disproportionately because of the ethic of thrift and modesty; one was not on this earth to enjoy and waste. Even after a century and a half of enrichment, their clothing, houses and manners proclaimed the virtues of abstinence. Our novelist Jean Schlumberger writes as follows of his grandmother’s room:
A small hotel for traveling salesmen is not more simply furnished. A big bed of walnut, a few chairs, bare walls covered by a somber leafy paper. Nothing that would betray the slightest feminine refinement.
Along with this passionate thrift went equally sober, dedicated work habits. When Jean Schlumberger (not the novelist; this one, also known as Jean de Schlumberger, born in 1819 at Guebwiller) was summoned by his father Nicolas to abandon political ambitions and, like his siblings, join the firm, he acceded without question and remained a partner for 60 years–not bad for someone who did not like the textile business.
But textiles, for all their importance, were only a start. In the Schlumberger clan, the great turning came in the late 19th century, when Paul (1848-1925), son of the aforementioned Jean de Schlumberger and Clarisse Dollfus–nothing like good genes–left Alsace with his six sons rather than live and work under Prussian-German rule. This voluntary exile made a difference, placing the family in Paris, center of all political, intellectual and cultural action. But however big that difference, the main break was the coincidence of family history with larger, transnational intellectual and scientific currents. The Paul Schlumbergers were in the right place at the right time.
Paul, in the best Alsatian Calvinist tradition, went to engineering school and then into business, where he came to hold some 25 seats on divers boards of directors. His heart, though, was with science, and he sent son Conrad (1878-1936) to the École Polytechnique and son Marcel (1884-1953) to the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures– two high temples of French scholastic excellence, competition and performance. There the young men were exposed to new areas of applied science, in particular the uses of electricity, and this experience of scientific novelty shaped an abiding fascination and curiosity in them both. They were drawn especially to the uses of electricity in exploring and mapping subterranean features, the solids and empty spaces beneath the earth’s surface.
This may have been mere curiosity and much fun to begin with, but experience soon showed a correlation between features and substance: the presence of water, for example, or potentially interesting minerals. The best was yet to come, but in the meantime, the young graduates went on to the kinds of things French engineers did. Conrad entered the prestigious Corps des Mines as a civil servant, went on to become professor at the École des Mines in Saint-Etienne, and then, in 1911, ascended to Paris. Marcel went into private industry, working on a patent for a rotary internal combustion engine, an anticipation again of later innovations. Reading of these achievements, one wonders why Marcel did not become a titan of the new industry. He had the imagination and the brains. Lack of friendly connections, perhaps? Provincial isolation? Want of enterprise or further interest?
No matter. In 1912 Conrad developed an improved method of under-surface electric prospecting and, with the assistance of a brother who was an archaeologist, tested the technique at the École des Mines in Paris (Where better to locate basements and subway tunnels?) and on a family estate in Normandy. The work seems to have been interrupted by the war, but in 1919 father Paul, impressed by his children’s achievements, endowed their further research with a gift of up to 500,000 francs. The deed of gift is worth quoting at length. It stipulated that in return for this support,
my sons will agree not to disperse their efforts, and to abstain from research or inventions in other fields. The field of activity is vast enough to satisfy their inventive genius by its investigation: they must devote themselves to it entirely. The scientific interest in research must take precedence over financial interest. I will be kept informed and will be able to express my opinion as to important directions and expenditures to be made or not to be made. The sums disbursed by me are a contribution on my part to primarily scientific and secondarily practical work which I consider to be of the highest value and in which I take an interest.
The success of the Schlumberger electrical prospection technique, particularly in the search for oil, coincided with the rise of automobile transport. One could not have been more fortunate in one’s business timing. This branch of the family, moreover, had the sense of honor and judgment–also the wealth and resources–to refuse the apparently easy opportunities of Nazi-dominated Europe and French collaboration. They pulled out and moved to Texas, a center of successful oil prospection in the free United States. There they continued to flourish and built their business into a wide diversity of activities. Some of them also abandoned Calvinism by intermarriage with and conversion to other religions. But they have done their best to hold on to their Weberian convictions.
Not surprisingly, the success of Calvinist enterprise in Alsace made the region something of a magnet for outside initiatives, including some from outside France itself. Thus we have the exceptional business performance of the Gros clan, from that corner of southeastern France that later became part of Switzerland. The immigrant family began as an enterprising few, but decades of fruitful marriages to cousins and to well-chosen Alsatian partners made for gains in trade and profitable investment in a variety of textile manufactures.
The Gros tale of success and enrichment has reflected inherited and cultivated taste and imagination, but also the advantages of family ties and trans-generational friendship and affection. The family has even produced self-appointed historians and organizers of the kinds of reunions and ceremonies that serve to affirm and tighten ties among kin. In this generation, the leading master of this function has been Patrick Gros, author and editor of a number of works privately published and distributed to interested parties, including an extraordinary family tree covering 15 generations. Gros treasures every document he has been able to collect on family activities and performance, to the point of lining the walls of his toilet. No room elsewhere.
The point here is the success of family business in an economy that is supposed to have left such older patterns behind. Modern students stress the advantage of managerial, corporate organization: the firm as a collection of talent. Family firms are seen as obsolete, and so noncompetitive. Yet the family, with its experience of trust, mutual support and traditional obligation, has more than held its own in those areas where these virtues matter; or where managerial teams are wanting, as in developing economies; or in Weberian strongholds like Alsace; and so on and on.
Culture counts, as Weber understood–and no one has understood it better.
1 Schlumberger, Eveils (1950) cited in Paulette Teissonière-Jestin, “Les Schlumberger de 1830 à 1930”, in Michael Hau, ed., Regards sur la société contemporaine: Trois familles industrielles d’ Alsace (Strausbourg: Oberlin, 1989), vol.1, p. 178.