Ken Jowitt Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Individual, Charisma, and the Leninist Extinction: Conversation with Ken Jowitt, Robson Professor of Political Science, U.C. Berkeley; 12/7/99 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Help me understand this word "charisma" more, because it's a term that obviously is used in the social sciences, one that you talk about in your work. Help our audience get a better hold on that.

Well let's start with what is it isn't. It isn't being popular. Rock stars are popular, and to go to a rock concert is not see people enthralled by charisma, it's to see people using a lot of drugs. Charisma, basically, is the ability on the part of person to establish themselves vis-à-vis a certain audience -- not everybody -- as being superior, compelling that audience to reject their existing identity in favor of what is perceived to be a superior identity that has sacred qualities. That's what it's about. And it takes the form of a person for whom many people in the audience say, this is a charlatan, but some people say, this is the presentation of the sacred. That could be Jesus Christ, a graceful, positive figure. It could be a Hitler, a malignant figure. But charisma is rare in its ability to, in effect, engage people. More than engage, compel people to reject who they are in favor of something that is given to them, not persuaded but imposed on them as superior. It's an imposition that's accepted. That, to me, is remarkable in history, and so I've always been intrigued as to who has it and what audience finds it engaging.

There's an element of the sacred in that, and the sacred along with individuation and the individual are themes that recur in your work. Did your Catholic upbringing in part contribute to your sensitivity to these kinds of issues of the sacredness, the awe, the reverence of certain individuals or issues?

Yes, yes. The Catholicism, Roman Catholicism, had a very ambivalent attitude. Roman Catholicism doesn't like the individual. It likes an individual as a soul, but even there, it's a little ambivalent. Basically I continue to think that Christ was the greatest cultural revolutionary in history. Because what he said is, "It's the individual soul that counts, not the chosen people." And it's not simply Jews who believe in the chosen people; almost every group in history has assigned identity to the group, not to the person, not to the individual.

Christ was a revolutionary. The Roman Catholic church took that and subordinated it to the church, which is again a group.

So, growing up in the church, I was intrigued by the charisma of the Holy Spirit, the charisma of the Pope. And at the same time, I was very sensitive to the fact that the church was hostile to the individual. And so I grew up a somewhat annoyed, somewhat angry, as well as devout Catholic, because I loved Martin Luther more than I liked the Pope. And I liked Luther because Luther stood up against that group and said, "Here I stand: I can do no other before my conscience and God." And I sort of liked that courage, that individual courage. That was the courage of Sherlock Holmes or Robinson Crusoe or Christopher Columbus. So if you point out that that's a contradiction in my life, you're absolutely right. I'm a living contradiction. I am intrigued by charisma, intrigued by the charisma of something like the Catholic church, intrigued for thirty years with the charisma of the Communist Party, which I do not identify with. And at the same time, feel antagonistic to that sort of charisma which negates the individual.

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