Marx and Weber are some of the leading classical social theorists that have shaped the modern discourse on capitalism. Weber is among the profound critics of Marxist ideologies, and thus the two have opposing views on the issue of capitalism even though they share some similarities on the same topic. The two thinkers criticized capitalism with Weber being ambivalent in his arguments and Marx choosing an explicit approach to the issue. On the one hand, Marx believes that capitalism can be overcome through a socialist revolution and on the other hand, Weber is a fatalist and resigned observer choosing to study the mode of production and administration, which he believes are inevitable aspects of a capitalist economy. This paper discusses the main opposing views between Marx and Weber concerning analyses of capitalism. Some suggestions on how Weber’s ideas might be useful for understanding capitalism today are outlined.
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Important Differences in Marx and Weber’s Analyses of Capitalism
Marx’s works from conception to the end are coherently anti-capitalistic and even though in Communist Manifesto (1848) he focuses on the historically liberal role of bourgeois, in Capital (1867), he shifts focus to denounce the outrageous nature of the system. Marx’s anti-capitalism ideologies are based on five fundamental issues including “the injustice of exploitation, the loss of liberty through alienation, venal (mercantile) quantification, irrationality, and modern barbarism” (Lowy 3). Marx argues that capitalism is based on the injustice of exploitation whereby workers are underpaid or unpaid for the surplus labor that they offer.
Second, in a capitalistic mode of production, proletariats lose their freedom through alienation and commodity fetishism. In other words, workers are dominated by the very products they make and commodities replace divinity. Third, Marx criticizes capitalism in what he calls venal quantification of human life whereby the quest to make profits dissolves human relations, emotions, and ethical values. The capitalistic system is also irrational in nature because while there are too many ways of subsistence, the largest part of populations lives in poverty. Finally, Marx maintains that capitalism supports modern barbarism through social regression as it “turns every economic progress into a public calamity” (171).
On his side, Weber’s approach to capitalism is ambivalent and contradictory. He argues that capitalism emerged from the Protestant work ethic characterized by “the combination of hard work, methodic economic activity, frugal life and the reinvestment of savings: a description which is very close to the idealized self-image of the bourgeois” (Lowy 7). He resignedly accepts bourgeois civilization as inevitable inasmuch as it is undesirable. He ignores the idea of exploitation of workers by bourgeois and he does not address the struggles of the working class. Additionally, he does not care about economic crises or question colonial expansion as part of capitalism. According to Weber, capitalism is justifiable for inasmuch as it is irrational, “people are oriented to acquisition as the purpose of life: acquisition is no longer viewed as a means to the end of satisfying the substantive needs of life” (17). In a bid to understand the differences between Weber and Marx on capitalism, the following section is a summary of how each views the issue.
Weber views capitalism through religious lenses, while Marx uses logic. For instance, Weber’s analysis majors on understanding how historical protestant movements helped in the creation of a capitalist economy (Calhoun et al. 292-294). On the contrary, Marx, using logical arguments, shows how capitalism works to the detriment of the proletariat and the poor. On labor, Weber maintains that workers are bound to labor and they cannot enjoy the fruits therein because it is a religious duty. Marx’s view on the issue is different as he notes that people should only work to provide for their needs by enjoying the fruits of their labor. While Marx believes that workers should have a better life from laboring in a capitalistic environment, Weber posits that individuals should focus on the afterlife as oppose to worldly contentment. Similarly, Marx holds that profiteering is immoral because it is based on the exploitation of workers under capitalism.
However, Weber states that profit is moral within protestant ethic mainly because he does not consider the question of exploitation of the proletariat. Additionally, on the one hand, Marx urges workers to consider their meager earnings and untenable positions in society and revolt against capitalism. On the other hand, Weber claims that the capitalistic system is good for the protestant workers because it brings peace of mind as they wait to go to heaven. Therefore, according to Weber, workers should accept that they are trapped in capitalism, hence they should accept that reality and live with it, but Marx urges workers to form a social revolution to defeat the system.
Useful Weber’s Ideas in Understanding Capitalism Today
Weber can be termed as a realist who saw capitalism for what it is and understood it within its context. Most of his ideas could be used to explain and understand capitalism today. For instance, he argues that workers should work hard and this line of thinking is common in contemporary times where capitalistic systems attach success to hard work. He also argues that pursuing profit is virtuous and an end in itself, which is the common belief in today’s capitalistic environment. Companies are concerned with their bottom line and it does not matter who is affected in the quest to make profits. Weber further argues that the spirituality that acted as the driving force for modern capitalism has faded, and people are now caught in economic conditions that cannot be understood or escaped. This assertion describes today’s capitalism whereby companies are making money for the sake of it. The focus is on the systems, not people and the most insidious problem with this form of system is that workers cannot escape it. People have to continue working despite the surrounding inhumane conditions. These arguments underline the issues of sweatshops where workers are exploited.
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Marx and Weber differed on many aspects concerning the concept of capitalism. While Marx endeavored to understand capitalistic systems from a logical perspective, Weber majored in the historical context of the issue and the role of protestants in creating such an economic system. In Weber’s world, workers should not complain about meager pay because work is a religious duty that and the fruits therein should not be enjoyed. However, Marx believes that the proletariat should revolt against capitalism because it is detrimental in its nature. Ultimately, while Marx maintains that capitalism can be defeated through social revolution, Weber accepts the inevitability of the system and embraces the bourgeoisie civilization. Weber’s ideas are realistic and they can be used to understand capitalism in today’s world where profit making is virtuous and an end in itself.
Calhoun, Craig, et al., editors. Classical Sociological Theory. 3rd ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
Lowy, Michael. “Marx and Weber: Critics of Capitalism.” New Politics, vol. 11, no. 2, 2007, pp. 1-16.
Marx, Karl. Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.
Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Stephen Kalberg, Blackwell, 2002.