Compare and contrast Marx and Weber's theories of social change

Karl Marx (1818 - 1883) and Max Weber (1864 - 1920) have often been regarded as the founding fathers of interpretive sociology, or of the social action approach within sociology.

Marx and Weber’s characteristics of modern societies were different. Marx stressed capitalism and class conflict and Weber stressed rationalisation and bureaucracy.  Marx and Weber identified problems within modern society.  Marx had a generally optimistic view about the future and believed his theory could improve human conditions. Weber on the other hand was more pessimistic.

Weber argued that modern societies are characterised increasingly by a process of rationalisation meaning that the world is increasingly governed by rationality in which tradition and affective forms of action are replaced by predominantly rational forms. This leads to disenchantment being seen as secularisation, including the progressive disposal of non-rational elements from all spheres of life.  Weber feared that this process of rationalisation would drive out the warmth and humanity of social life, the very things that give meaning to human existence.

According to Marx however, modern societies are characterised by capitalism and who owns the means of production.  Marx distinguished four types of production that have succeeded each other; these are primitive communism, ancient society, feudalism and capitalism.  These types of production are characterised by a set of class relations.  Those who own the means of production exploit the labour of those who do not own the means of production.  In ancient society, masters exploited slaves.  In feudal society, Lords exploited serfs who were tied to the land; and in capitalist society, the bourgeoisie exploit the labour power of the proletariat who are forced to work for the bourgeoisie in order to survive.  In each case of production exploitation leads to class conflict and the eventual replacement of each mode of production.

Marx and Weber had different views on bureaucracy.  Weber believed that bureaucratic organisations were essential for the operation of the industrial society.  He believed that the growth of bureaucracy was a result of the development of new forms of power in industrial society with some individuals exercising more power than others within society and getting others to comply with their wishes whether they agreed with them or not.  This was because the organisation or person is seen as having a right to command obedience.

Marx’s views were different on bureaucracy and he did not have much to say on the matter except that he saw state bureaucracy as an instrument of class oppression that maintained the dominance of the bourgeoisie.  Marx predicted there would be a proletarian revolution where administrators would be elected and truly responsible to the people.  Bureaucracy would cease to exist in a classless society.

Marx viewed the development of modern nation states that linked to the development of capitalism.  The state acts to ensure that political decisions are taken that allow capitalists to continue accumulation wealth.  Weber argued that the rise of bureaucratically organised states was part of the growing process of rationalisation, which accompanied the rise of capitalism.

With view to religion, Marx believed that it was a conservative force in society whereas Weber used the ideas of the Protestant Ethic and the spirit of capitalism to show that religion could bring about social change.   Weber based these ideas on Christian Calvinists where the people had hard working lives, saving their money instead of spending it and ploughing it into their businesses.  This meant that when the industrial revolution needed a large investment of capital, there was a group of people in society with good work ethics and money at their disposal.

According to Weber the Protestant ethic did not cause capitalism but it provided the necessary moral and economic climate in which capitalism could happen.  Industrial revolution and capitalism brought big changes so Weber used this to make a link between religious ideas and social change.

Weber perceived changes occurring in society through the efforts of a charismatic leader who is able to distance himself to a cause.  Because rationalisation brings with it bureaucratisation and because bureaucracy brings with it ossification, the process of rationalisation is not sufficient for a continuing process of social change.  So therefore social change needs charismatic leadership.  Neither Weber nor Marx conceives social changes as involving an ongoing process of reflection and self - change.

Marx reduces conflict and the egotistical self-interest to capitalism or to that of a class society.  In his views he does not see that conflict and repression are avoidable even in loving and caring communities.  On the other hand Weber’s view of social life and existence is individuals banding together to realize their own individual ends.  He does not see social relationships, community, or sociability as essential ends.  Weber reduces social life to the motives and practices of self-interested people in society, all of who are engaged in powers for struggle.


Weber and Marx have different opinions on class.  According to Marx there are only two classes in society. The bourgeoisie, those who own production and the proletariat those who do not own production and those who labour for the bourgeoisie.  Weber has a different view of class and he thinks there are different levels of class; he introduced the middle class, which has upset Marx’s plans for a future proletariat revolution.

Marx sees communism as ending the alienation of the individual from community, he has a view that the proletariat will one day overthrow the bourgeoisie.  Weber sees communism has stifling the individual and the individual spheres of life in the name of the community.

In my essay I have compared and contrasted Marx and Weber’s theories of social change and how they view change.  I have illustrated how Marx sees change through capitalism and conflict and Weber through rationalisation and bureaucracy.  They both have different views about social change and out come.  Weber theories are based much on his ideal types, not best types but types that are of the purest kind.  Marx’s views are much more optimistic than Weber’s idealistic pessimistic views.

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