Comparing and Contrasting Max Weber and Karl Marx: The Rise of Capitalism and Class Theory

  1. Introduction

The task of identifying similarities and differences in Karl Marx and Max Weber is not an easy one. This essay will attempt to do so through their contesting theories regarding the emergence of capitalism and class theory. Although both thinkers provide a much more extensive analysis of society than is here offered, the ideas presented in this essay serve as a preliminary case study to the fundamental difference of conceptualizing society: namely Marx’s view of a material basis to both the expression of economic states and to social stratification is opposed to Weber’s primacy of cultural and social factors as influencing these conditions. The two prominent sociologists look towards an historical basis to explain the origins of capitalism, however it may be said that Marx devises a “grand theory” of historical determinism, while Weber focuses on contextual history, explaining the rise of capitalism through specific historical conditions. Marx puts forth a macro-economic theory later described as historical materialism, in which he bases all social production of men in the economic, material forces of production. He views forces of production as paramount in transforming society from one state to another; that is to say, that, according to Marx, a society determined by (e.g.) feudal forces of production have these forces contested when new, more modern forces of production conflict with the prior ones. Hence, material production determines the nature of historical conditions. Weber, on the other hand, searches for specific historical conditions that can explain the rise of capitalism. He equates the capitalist spirit with what he calls the protestant ethic. He sets a causal relationship between the two, viewing the protestant ethic as a cultural phenomenon forming a specific work ethic that explains the capitalist nature of men. The difference between the two positions is not only explained by Weber’s primacy of culture as opposed to an economic base to the historical development of capitalism, but also by his rejection of Marx’s belief that capitalism is an inevitable economic condition that will eventually be replaced by a more sophisticated economic state, i.e. communism. While they both see individuals in society as ruled by abstract systems where there are relations of distinct entities, the content of their analysis and their intellectual endeavor is substantially different.

Another difference embodied in the theories of the two sociologists pertains to ideas of class system. Marx constructs his theory around the two poles of the Bourgeoisie and Proletariat classes, the former owning the means of production and the latter having their labor exploited by the Bourgeoisie. Marx argues that the emergence of these two classes is inevitable in the context of historical determinism, owing to specific criteria of the organization of the forces of production. In other words, the formation of classes and a person’s economic position in society is determined by one’s relation to the material conditions of production. Weber provides a more extensive theory to social stratification, where he notes that the process is not merely dependent on the ownership of capital, but relies on the three instances of class, status and power (or party). This theory, called the three-component theory of stratification, which will later in the essay be explained in more detail, acknowledges social stratification as having ideological value; that is to say that the creation and maintenance of social strata are enveloped by the possession of power and the exercising of power (and not only material power). The status of individuals in a class is a social resource and not merely an economic one. In other words, Weber sees social stratification as the interplay between wealth, prestige and power, each taking place in three different instances of class, status and party. This theory posits that ideas can create social change, as opposed to Marx, who argues that society is only a result of material conditions.

  1. Karl Marx and Max Weber on The Rise of Capitalism

Marx’s historical materialism is based upon the fundamental reality that human survival from generation to generation depends upon the production and reproduction of the material requirements of life. This being said, material propagation happens through the process of people having definite social relations or, in other words, production relations. This, in turn, causes division of labor, which is determined by the relations of production. Marx says that “The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness.”1 Here the idea of historical materialism is clearly formulated; the “base” of society is its productive relations, these are “tools, instruments, technology, land, raw materials, and human knowledge and abilities in terms of using these means of production”,2 while the superstructure is everything else that exists in society (e.g. religion, legal status, government, philosophy, etc.) Marx identified four modes of production in history until his proposal of the fifth and final revolutionary communism. These are primitive communism or tribal society (a prehistoric stage), ancient society, feudalism, and capitalism. Each of these social stages is characterized by different modes of production and different allocation of material surplus. Primitive communism is called in this name because it is essentially an egalitarian hunter and gatherer society, where everyone has equal social relations and ownership. With the development of agricultural methods, the relations of production changed into that of ancient society, whose division of labor was characterized into that of slaves and slave-owners. Feudalism, hence, according to the Marxist view that production relations are determined by productive forces, is identified by landowners and serfs. Capitalism is based on the classes of the capitalist class (bourgeoisie) and the working class. In each of these social stages, except that of egalitarian primate communism, there is a privileged class (such as the capitalist class) that owns the means of production, and a class that survive by exchanging their labor (working class). In history, “at a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto.”3 Marx argues that this “era of social revolution” changes the economic foundations and leads “sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”4 Underlined here is Marx’s historical materialism, where it is clear that historical development from one economic state to another, and all the ideological or cultural forms that are expressed in these social stages, are entirely determined by the “base”, that is the material production relations. Marx believed that the final and ideal economic stage in the process of this historical determinism is communism, where there no longer exists class conflict between the dominant and subordinated class and society is egalitarian. The transition of society into communism will only occur through a proletariat led revolution.

Max Weber, unlike Marx, sees culture and ideology as a basis for the formation of capitalism. More specifically, Weber argued that the motivated spirit of capitalist accumulation in Northern Europe evolved from the ideology of Protestant (or Calvinist) ethic, which influenced people in developing a mindset of secular work. The result of this relationship was the engagement in capitalist enterprises, trade and accumulation of wealth and investments. While Weber doesn’t believe that capitalism is strictly Protestant, he argues that the culture of these religious ideas was one of the founding forces behind the emergence of modern capitalism. The Reformation of Christianity into Protestantism served as a change in values regarding hard work and progress. The spirit of capitalism is founded on favoring rational pursuit of economic gain and, Weber says:  “We shall nevertheless provisionally use the expression ‘spirit of capitalism’ for that attitude which, in the pursuit of a calling, strives systematically for profit for its own sake in the manner.”5 The divide that the Protestant Reformation had from the Catholic Church affected people of the Protestant religious orientation in such a manner that they believed that the institution of the Catholic Church has nothing to do with their salvation. Salvation is predetermined. People, hence, have an individual approach to the merit of religion and a personal relationship to the meaning that is embodied in God. This resulted in an ideological change of values, in which people of Protestant persuasion saw work as their vocation and they were hence encouraged to strive for “economic success”. ‘Wealth was an end in itself’, rather than a means to provide for the needy, as Catholic asceticism saw it.5 In extensive research of societies of mixed religion, Weber discovered that “the leaders of the economic system- business leaders, owners of capital, high-grade skilled labor, and more advanced technically and commercially trained personnel- were all overwhelmingly Protestant.”6 While Weber admits that the industrial revolution and the rationalization and secularization of society were significant indices to the emergence of capitalism, he also credits the aforementioned Protestant mentality of people at the time as a drive towards the “capitalist spirit”. Weber believed that the “spirit of capitalism” was not an example of greedy self-interest (as Marx believed), but rather an ethical duty enveloped by a set of values, “that among other things stresses economic success… Protestantism succeeded in turning the pursuit of profit into a moral crusade.”7

Both Marx and Weber share the view that modern capitalism is a system where “the individuals are ruled by abstractions, where the impersonal and “thing-like” relations replace the personal relations of dependence, and where the accumulation of capital becomes an end in itself.”8 However, there is a fundamental difference in the conception of the rise of modern capitalism. Namely, Marx argues that capitalism is inevitable in the determined course of history and that any ideological changes were created by strict evolution of the material basis of society; this is heavily contested by Weber’s primacy of the role of ideational conditions that he believed developed by chance: it is ideas and culture that are most involved in the transformation of society into capitalism. Marx’s historical materialism is contrasted by Weber’s analysis that the ideology of the Protestant ethic lead to the “spirit of capitalism”. “On a theoretical level, by stressing that he was dealing with the relationship between one ethos (Protestantism) and another (the spirit of capitalism), Weber was able to keep his analysis primarily at the level of systems of ideas.”9 While Marx saw capitalism as inherently immoral and “wagers on the possibility of overcoming capitalism thanks to a socialist revolution”, Weber, a “resigned observer”10, argued that the capitalist spirit was a moral system defined by the pursuit of wealth. However, both the sociologists agree on how to define the elements of capitalism, namely that capitalism is based on the rational accumulation of wealth/capital. The theories of Marx and Weber differ in regards to the emergence and state of modern capitalism; Marx insists on an economic motive, while Weber sees culture as its fundamental drive. Even though their theories share the commonality of using historical analysis to describe the rise of capitalism they still stand in opposition in understanding what is the force behind it all.

  1. Karl Max and Max Weber on Class System

Marxist class theory asserts that social stratification or the assembling of individuals into class hierarchies is determined by a person’s role in the production process, and this division, in turn, causes ideological, class consciousness. Hence, Marx defined class as embedded in material relations, rather than social status. Marx distinguished class status based on the economic factor relating to productive forces, and hence gave two criteria to class structure: ownership of the means of production and control of labor force. He sees modern capitalist society as having three classes: capitalist, or bourgeoisie class (the dominant class), the workers or proletariat class (people belonging to this class are subordinated and sell their labor), and the petite bourgeoisie class, known as smaller capitalists, who own sufficient means of production, but do not employ labor force. Marx further described his class theory by conceptualizing the idea of class conflict, which drives history and social division. Each class has, what he calls, class consciousness; this is self-awareness of the populace of a class, who act in their rational self-interest. Marx’s refusal of the capitalist class system lies in the antagonism “between worker and capitalist, replacing this with a class based analysis of the worker’s struggle for better wages and conditions of work, versus the capitalist’s drive for ever greater profits.”11 This conflict is inherently problematic according to Marx and will eventually lead either to the “revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”12 Marx believed that class ideology works to reproduce and normalize the state of inequality that inherently exists in the capitalist class system. “The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.”13 He believed, as stated in the previous section of the essay, that the ideal state in which this class struggle will be dissolved is egalitarian communism.

Weber “refused to reduce stratification to economic factors”.14 Instead, he offered a multi-dimensional theory of social stratification involving three instances of class, status and party. On the level of class, its basis is economic power (here he somewhat agrees with Marx), and individuals are classified by their income and economic life opportunities, especially in the capitalist economy, where the division of lower, middle and upper class are constituted by sharing similar income. Status is characterized by social prestige and on this level individuals share communal ties, as opposed to in class, where people only share economic interest.  “Very frequently the striving for power is also conditioned by the social ‘honor’ it entails” and “indeed, social honor; or prestige, may even be the basis of political or economic power, and very frequently has been.”15 Hence, the status order, or the kind of prestige a group of people have may determine economic power, and material relations have a basis in cultural ground, such as ethnic and racial groups as well as gender. This can be exemplified by the prestige a privileged man has vis-à-vis a subordinated woman, and the emphasis here is on the power of cultural values in the act of social stratification. Thus, status order propagates social power of individuals in a community based on cultural principles and “the decisive role of a ‘style of life’ in status ‘honor’ means that status groups are the specific bearers of all ‘conventions.’”16 “Such honorific preferences may consist of the privilege of wearing special costumes, of eating special dishes taboo to others, of carrying arms—which is most obvious in its consequences—the right to pursue certain non-professional dilettante artistic practices, e.g. to play certain musical instruments.”17 These examples show that status works to convene social privileges, rather than merely economic ones. The level of party in social stratification regards social influence, and its “action is oriented toward the acquisition of social ‘power,’ that is to say, toward influencing a communal action no matter what its content may be.”18 In other words, any form of planned communal action, whose goal it is to gain social power and influence constitutes as a party. A party may be a political institution that instates legal procedures, or a union that protects the society of the labor class, or non-governmental organizations that protect citizens of distinct social status. The party “may represent interests determined through ‘class situation’ or ‘status situation,’ and they may recruit their following respectively from one or the other.”19 Thus, class, status and party are instances of the distribution of power along trajectories of economic, social and political orders.

Marx and Weber agree in one important aspect: that there are privileged and subordinated classes. However, this does not say much in regards to their conceptions of class systems; because according to Weber the privileges of power are expressed through social factors and not merely material ones. Even though Weber believes that material relations are important in the level of class, “’Economically conditioned’ power is not, of course, identical with ‘power’ as such. On the contrary, the emergence of economic power may be the consequence of power existing on other grounds. Man does not strive for power only in order to enrich himself economically.”20 Again, there is a clear antagonism between Marx’s belief that material relations constitute society (regarding both the origins of capitalism and class divisions) and Weber’s prioritization of socio-cultural aspects in the power divisions of society. While Marx argues that class division is strictly motivated by an individual’s relation to production and that social groups are a result of class order alone, Weber observes the importance of social status that organizes individuals in such a way that they promote their economic as well as ideological interests through the party order. Weber states that “one’s duty in a calling is what is most characteristic of the social ethic of capitalistic culture, and is in a sense the fundamental basis of it.”21 Marx theorizes a coherent description founded on the dialectic between the relations of capital and the historically specific context of class division. It is a simplified analysis compared to Weber’s multiplicity of social, economic and political power that drives social stratification. Weber discusses how power is organized in modern society through a multi-dimensional analysis, while Marx asks how material forces and relations directly determine class division through the two competing forces of owning the means of labor and having one’s labor exploited.

  1. Conclusion: Marx Weber

Marx’s approach is adequate in establishing a theory of deterministic quality that polarizes itself around conflicting societal forces; thus, he gives ground to the compulsions of historical processes in order to explain the development and essence of modern society. Weber can be seen to have a similar goal in explaining the emergence of capital through the protestant ethic vis-à-vis Marx’s historical materialism. Even regarding class divisions there is some agreement between the two sociologists; specifically, they both acknowledge that social stratification is founded upon the distribution of power. However, they differ significantly in their analysis of what phenomenon is primal in both the origins of capitalism and social division. Marx’s theory relies heavily on the idea that material production and reproduction is the basis of any societal structure, and this is elementary in understanding why he sees the capitalist economy as inherently problematic and why he vouches for social revolution in the form of communism. The antagonism in the material interests of the dominant and subordinated classes results in uncontrolled exploitation, which is opposed to Marx’s wish for an egalitarian society. Weber is reluctant to see society as strictly motivated by economic forces and sees the social motivations of individuals as moral at least in the sense that people’s drive in capitalist societies allow for their incorporation into the market system (this is true also for the exploited labor class). While both Marx and Weber look to history in order to explain the emergence of capitalism, Weber’s primacy of cultural and ideological forces taking place in the form of religious orientation (protestant ethic) is in strict opposition to Marx’s belief that the base of society is only its material relations. As stated in the introduction, Weber searches for specific social contexts occurring casually in history, while Marx views history as a totality of deterministic value. This is also true in their analysis of class divisions, where Marx is again inclined to see social distinctions as distribution of economic power, while Weber’s three-component theory is based on the multiplicity of economic, but more importantly social and political power. To conclude, it may be said that both Weber’s and Marx’s approach is strictly sociological, as they study the structure and development of human society, and however different the content of their theories, the importance of studying history through historical sociology is implicit in their theories; hence providing an important difference in theoretical background by which future sociologists may orientate their interpretation of human society.



  1. References
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  • Compare and Contrast Marx’s and Weber’s Theories about the Rise of Capitalism. Which Do You Prefer and Why?” Compare and Contrast Marx. Web. <;.
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