More coursework: 1 - A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I - J | K - L | M | N - O | P - S | T | U - Y

Marx and weber

Marx And Weber, Views On Society

Capitalism is defined as an economic "system of wage-labour and commodity production for sale, exchange, and profit, rather than for the immediate need of the producers" (Marshall, 1998: 53). As observed by Karl Marx, capitalism transformed a small proportion of a society's population into capitalists, or those who own the factories and industrial businesses, while the larger proportion of the population became wage labourers, a grouping which Marx called the proletariats. These workers gain the wages needed to live through the sale of their labour to capitalists in the capitalistic industries (Macionis, 1997: 76). Though both Karl Marx and Max Weber, sociologists living during the 19th century, observed this economic system, each conjectured a different explanation for its rise. Marx employed a materialistic approach in his explanation of the rise of capitalism, believing that the ways by which people make material products shapes the whole of society. Weber, finding Mar!

x's explanation for the rise of capitalism too narrow, explained that in addition to technology, ideas also have a shaping power upon society, and capitalism was a product of both. Contrary to this belief, Marx believed that a society's ideas simply reflect the system, or mode of production in place within that society. Though both sociologists expressed different views concerning the rise of capitalism, each believed that capitalism caused alienation amongst the members of society. Marx believed that the wage labourers developed feelings of alienation and isolation because of their powerlessness in relation to the capitalists (Macionis, 1997: 80), while Weber believed that alienation resulted from the dehumanisation of individuals by the capitalist, bureaucratically dominated society.

As previously stated, Marx's approach to understanding the rise capitalism involved the idea of materialism, or that the lives of people in a specific society are shaped by the way material products are produced. During his study of capitalism, Marx introduced the idea that the economic sphere dominates all other sociological institutions and systems. He defined the economic system as the social infrastructure of society, the base upon which all other social systems are constructed, dubbing the other social institutions as the social superstructure (Macionis, 1997: 77). Marx believed that these social superstructures were constructed upon the economic system, and therefore, extended the ideas of economics into other aspects of society. Marx saw this as a potential tool for usage by the capitalists, by which they were able to secure their wealth and holdings. An important aspect of Marx's description of capitalism is its irrationality. He believed it was an irrational system of production because it created large social problems by failing to meet the needs of so many, only beneficial to the small group of capitalists. Though irrational, Marx believed that capitalism was able to exist due to the sense of false consciousness which it conveys. Marx defines this false consciousness as the explanation of social problems as the fault of an individual's inadequacies, rather than sociological flaws existing in the capitalist society (Macionis, 1997: 78). This materialistic approach to the understanding of capitalism lead to Marx's ideas of class conflict as the motivational force driving sociological change throughout history.

As quoted in Marx's Manifesto of the Communist Party, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another..." (Marx, 1978: 473). Using the idea of materialism, Marx traced class conflict through the different stages of history in order to explain the rise of modern industrial capitalism. Marx explained the concept of class in terms of economic factors, defining classes in relation to the means of production, or the technological and social means by which production is carried out in a society (Giddens, Sociology, 1993: 757). He considered that a class is made of people who have a common relationship to the means of production. For example, Marx defined two classes in a capitalist system, the capitalists and the proletariats. As discussed in the quote from the Manifesto of the Communist Party, classes existed in opposition to each other throughout history. Marx attempts to explain the rise of capitalism by dividing history into four main epochs, each defined by a different modes of production. The main epochs which Marx discusses are listed in chronological order as primitive communism, ancient systems, feudalism, and lastly, modern industrial capitalism. In each system after primitive communism, Marx specifies the existence of distinct classes set in opposition to one another.

The first epoch described by Marx is the pre-class, primitive communism society comprised of early hunting and gathering tribes. This system is described as communism, and therefore, the production of food and material is a common goal, shared equally by each member of society. Division of labour does not exist except in a "broad division between sexes: women, being largely occupied with the rearing of children, play a lesser productive role than men" (Giddens, Capitalism, 1971: 24). While the adult men are occupied with hunting, the women care for the children and gather food. According to the characteristics of this society, there is little social conflict because property is communal. Each member of the tribe had access to natural resources, and therefore, "private property does not derive from the state of nature, and is an outcome of later social development" (Giddens, Capitalism, 1971: 24).

This early, primitive communist tribe is described as migratory, consuming the natural resources of each area before moving onto another. Eventually, as horticulture, or the cultivation of domestic plants using primitive hand tools (Macionis, 1997: 70) developed, these formerly nomadic tribes began to permanently settle in an area, forming a stable community based upon horticulture, agriculture, and pastoralism. According to Marx, this defines a new epoch, called the "ancient world." As food production increased, each community developed the compactly to support a larger population, and therefore, the populations of these small tribal cities grew. With the increase in food production due to the domestication of plants and animals came the production of a material surplus, or the production of "more resources than necessary to sustain day-to-day living" (Macionis, 1997: 71). Also, population growth lead to inevitable contact between different tribal communities, resulting in the conquest of one tribe by another. This conquest often resulted in an ethnic slavery system. In addition to the development of slavery, was the exchange of products between tribes, as each tribes had different means of production (Giddens, Capitalism, 1971: 25).

As the ancient world system further developed, several tribes united together into a city by agreement or conquest, resulting in a population expansion and the development of defined classes. In this system there exists a ruling class defined by their ownership of landed property (Giddens, Capitalism, 1971: 27). These cities, exemplified in Greece and Rome, were interested in military expansion and conquest due to the rapid population growth. As previously stated, this expansion resulted in a slavery system, the slaves becoming responsible for the majority of the productive labour, while the landlords became a "separate ruling class monopolising public funds and the organisation of warfare" (Giddens, Capitalism, 1971: 27). Social inequality is first observed in this system with the elite of society at the top of the social hierarchy, asserting their domination over the slaves and peasants through military means. These slaves and peasants became the exploited labour force of the elite, and social conflict between the land-owning elite and the slave labour class was created. Peasants themselves were forced into slavery, which developed in many forms and lead to the concentration of enormous wealth in the hands of the elite class. Although great wealth was generated, eventually this ancient world system deteriorated due to its inability to progress beyond a certain point. According to Anthony Giddens, "the expropriation of large numbers of peasants from their means of production - a process upon which Marx lays great stress in discussing the origins of capitalism - does not lead to the development of capitalist production, but instead to a system based on slavery, which eventually disintegrates from within" (Giddens, Capitalism, 1971: 29).

The next epoch which Marx describes in his explanation for the rise of capitalism is feudalism. This system is characterised by a stratified class system in which the king is at the top of the hierarchy, with a landed, noble aristocracy serving under him. Masses of land were owned by these lords, and work on the land was performed by the serfs. The relationship between the serfs and lords is again one of exploitation and social conflict. Serfs were a valuable asset to the land and lords because they produced necessary goods, as well as a surplus needed to pay the landlords. Characteristic of this epoch is the role of the Church and State, both of which advocated the inequalities imposed by the social system of feudalism as religiously justified, or "God's Will" (Macionis, 1997: 78). This feudal system can be analysed using the concept of materialism. The feudal, agricultural based economy provides the infrastructure or base upon which social institutions are built that reinforce the principles of feudalism.

Feudalism served to further concentrate wealth in the hands of the few elite, though eventually the feudal system was weakened due to new forms of production, as well as the expansion of trade and commerce (Macionis, 1997: 78). Urbanisation and the growth of cities occurred simultaneously with the formation of a new social class, the bourgeoisie. This class was formed by skilled craft workers and merchants who earned wealth through expanding trade. As trade continued to expand, this bourgeoisie class reinvested their wealth in further expansion, eventually forming the capitalist class. As this industrialisation continued, the serfs were forced from their land, soon becoming wage labourers. Feudal plots were integrated and converted into land to raise sheep for the expanding textile industry. The former serfs were forced to move into the expanding cities in order to meet the needs of capitalist industry. Modern industrial capitalism had developed.

Marx uses realism in his explanation of the rise of capitalism. Realism is defined as a scientific method by which one theorises a problem "so that its underlying 'real' or essential structure can be described and its underlying causal dynamic located" (Plummer notes, 18/10/01). In other words, Marx attempts to explain the rise of capitalism through an explanation of its underlying causes. As previously discussed, Marx believes that materialism, and economy, form the base upon which all other superstructure are constructed, and therefore, are the causal components of capitalism. Also, Marx uses a conflictual paradigm in his explanation of the rise of capitalism, focusing on the conflict created by the inequality in each social system. This explanation is said to be a macro-level type because Marx focuses on the "broad social structures that characterise society as a whole" (Macionis, 1997: 22). The structure which Marx focuses on in his explanation of capitalism is the economic infrastructure, and the social institutions built upon, and further conveying, the ideas of this infrastructure.

Max Weber disagreed with the oversimplification of history which Marx uses in his explanation for the rise of capitalism, especially Marx's belief that ideas simply reflect the mode of production. Weber believed that ideas also have a transforming power, and modern society was a product of both the combination of new techniques of thinking and technological change. Central to Weber's explanation for the rise of capitalism was the characterisation of all societies as either traditional or rational based upon how they view the world. According to Weber, pre-industrial societies were to be considered traditional because they were guided by traditions, or "sentiments and beliefs passed from generation to generation" (Macionis, 1997: 81). Weber described the industrial societies as rational because they were devoid of sentiment, instead guiding themselves by efficiency, or the most direct route to a goal. Traditional societies were said to be shaped by the past, while rational societies were shaped by the consideration of one's consequences upon the present and future. In contrast to Marx, Weber believed that industrial capitalist societies were completely rational, exemplified by their creation of the bureaucratic system. This institution is considered the very embodiment of rationality, responsible for "promoting rational efficiency, continuity of operation, speed, precision, and the calculation or results" (Gerth and Mills, 1991: 49). Bureaucracy is characterised by a highly organised agency intended to reach specific goals in the most efficient manner (Macionis, 1997: 86). Though disagreeing on the rationality of the capitalist system, both Marx and Weber believed that this economic system created alienation and isolation. Weber felt that this alienation stemmed from the dehumanisation of individuals by the capitalist bureaucratic systems. For example, these systems tended to impersonally treat people as expendable cases rather than individuals.

Though each sociologist agrees that alienation is a direct result of industrial capitalism, Weber's explanation for the rise of capitalism is distinctive from Marx's. Weber's main concern with Marx's explanation was its oversimplification of history and the dismissal of the transforming power of ideas. Weber felt that Marx's explanation "tried to explain everything in terms of economic factors. Weber wanted to recognise the importance of non-economic factors in social stratification" (Fulcher and Scott, 1999: 606). Weber's main objective in his explanation for the rise of capitalism is to illustrate the importance of ideas or "non-economic factors" contributing to the creation of the capitalist system. Through a complex statistical analysis of Europe, Weber attempted to create a link between Calvinistic beliefs, a form of Protestantism developed during the Christian Reformation in Europe, and the rise of capitalism. Weber believed that "Protestantism is the ideological reflection of the economic changes which were incurred with the early development of capitalism" (Giddens, Capitalism, 1971: 125). The three main beliefs of Calvinism which Weber discusses as important to the development of the capitalist system are the belief that the universe is a created in God's glory, that humans are incapable of understanding God's overall plan, and the belief in predestination, or that at birth God has already decided whether or not an individual will reach eternal salvation. (Giddens, Capitalism, 1971: 128). According to these three tenants, one is already "chosen" for salvation at birth, and there is no way by which any human can understand who is chosen, and who is not chosen. Deeply upset by this unknowing, Calvinists attempted to look for indications of divine favour in their own lives. This resulted in the Calvinist interpretation of prosperousness as an indication of God's acceptance. Therefore "Calvinists threw themselves into a quest for s!

uccess, applying rationality, discipline, and hard work to their tasks" (Macionis, 1997: 83).

Calvinism warns against the idleness which wealth can produce, and therefore, the Calvinists reinvested the wealth which they generated in their profit-persuing activities. It is important to note that they did not charitably give it to the poor because as wealth was interpreted as a sign of religious favour, poverty was a sign of religious rejection. As this practice continued, the rational foundation for capitalism was created. The Calvinists continued to reinvest their wealth in the pursuit of more wealth, and employed rational thought by accepting new forms of technology which would more efficiently produce wealth. This practice was refereed to as the "Protestant Ethic" (Macionis, 1997: 83), and later evolved into what is now referred to as the capitalist work ethic. This transformation occurred as the religious connotation surrounding the profit-persuing activities was weakened, leaving a "success-seeking personal discipline" in its place (Macionis, 1997: 83).

Weber uses statistical analysis to support his explanation for the rise of capitalism, indicating that capitalism first arose in the parts of Europe in which Calvinism had the strongest following. Unlike Marx, Weber does not present a narrow explanation for capitalism's rise, indicating that pathways shaped by other ideas also exist and lead to the capitalist system. Weber's explanation employs the use of the ideal type, or a "pure type (in this case Calvinism) constructed by emphasising certain traits of a given social item which do not necessarily exist anywhere in reality. These traits are defining, not desirable ones" (Giddens, Sociology, 1993: 755). Weber uses the ideal type of Calvinism to trace the religion's most important characteristics, and the ways in which these central characteristics shaped society. Unlike Marx who employes realism, Weber uses interpretivism in his explanation for the creation of the capitalism, attempting to understand social phenomenon through the examination of "people's own perceptions of the world fashioned through interaction with other actors" (Class handout, 2/11/01). In other words, Weber attempts to understand the ideas of Calvinism which gave rise to capitalism through the investigation of the interactions of Calvinists. Also, Weber's explanation is guided by a micro-level, action paradigm because he focuses his investigation of society on the social interactions between individuals, rather than on the overall social institutions upon which Marx's explanation is based.

Though both Weber and Marx characterised modern industrial capitalism as a system of alienation and isolation of individuals, each explained its rise differently. Marx's explanation for the creation of capitalism is based upon a materialistic approach, characterising each epoch of civilisation by the way in which food and material products were produced. Marx attempts to understand the economic infrastructure of each epoch, and the social conflict which this infrastructure creates. Weber believes Marx's explanation for the rise of capitalism an oversimplification of history, and stresses the importance ideas in the transformation of society. Weber illustrates his point by tracing the rise of capitalism in connection to the beliefs of Calvinism. Though both Marx and Weber observed the alienation created by capitalism, Marx offers an explanation as to how this alienation will be overcome, and the exploitation of capitalism ended by a proletariat revolution resulting in socialism. Weber disagreed with this interpretation, believing that "socialisation of the means of production would merely subject an as yet relatively autonomous life to the bureaucratic management of the state" (Gerth and Mills, 1991: 49). In other words, the state's bureaucratic authority would expand, exercising greater control over each individual. Marx's argument is somewhat discredited by his belief in a socialist revolution, as the revolution hasn't occurred, and yet, society has progressed to a post-industrial stage. Instead of conjecturing a possible end to industrial capitalism, Weber quietly died troubled by the dehumanisation and isolation of the capitalist system.


Fulcher, J. and J. Scott. (1999) Sociology, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Gerth, H.H., & Wright Mills, C. (1991) From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, London: T.J. Press.

Giddens, A. (1971) Capitalism and modern social theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Giddens, A. (1993) Sociology, 2nd ed, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Macionis, J., & Plummer, K. (1997) Sociology, a global introduction, London: Prentice Hall Europe.

Marchall, G. (1998) Dictionary of Sociology, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1978) 'The Manifesto of the Communist Party' in Tucker, R. (eds.) The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed, New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Plummer, K. Lecture Notes "Lecture Two: Society As Mode Of Production: Marx." 18/10/01

Teng, Siao See. Class Handout "What is Empiricism, Positivism, Realism, Interpretivism." 2/11/01

Source: Essay UK -

About this resource

This coursework was submitted to us by a student in order to help you with your studies.

Search our content:

  • Download this page
  • Print this page
  • Search again

  • Word count:

    This page has approximately words.



    If you use part of this page in your own work, you need to provide a citation, as follows:

    Essay UK, Marx And Weber. Available from: <> [27-05-20].

    More information:

    If you are the original author of this content and no longer wish to have it published on our website then please click on the link below to request removal: