Marx versus Weber (from Progressive Sociologists Network list)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Apr 11 08:54:14 MDT 2002

George Snedeker asked:

        "Who has written about how Weber's conception of capitalism differs
from that of Marx? I am looking for something brief and clear on this.


        Below is an excerpt from a paper I gave at ASA a few years ago
critically analyzing how classical sociological theory is generally taught.
 Against the common view that Marx and Weber are similar to or complement
each other, I argue that they are fundamentally different.  Against the
view that Marx and Weber had similar views of capitalism, I argue that they
had profoundly different conceptions of capitalism, and therefore,
profoundly different explanations of how capitalism came into existence.  I
illustrate these differences by quoting briefly from Marx on "primitive
accumulation" and from Weber's introduction to The Protestant Ethic.

        Why did Weber support German imperialism before and during World
War I?  Why did he call for the expulsion of Polish agricultural workers
from Germany?  Why did he denounce the Russian Revolution?  Why did he
regard non-Europeans and especially blacks as inferior races?  Why did he
maintain that the solution to Germany's defeat in World War I might depend
on the emergence of a charismatic leader?  In short, if there was little
difference between Weber and Marx and their analyses of capitalism, why was
Weber essentially a precursor of Nazism?

        I have long thought that progressive sociologists who have a soft
spot for Max Weber do not know the real Weber.  As Mort Wenger used to say,
they know the Americanized, sanitized, Parsonized Weber who was reinvented
for Cold War purposes as an alternative to Marx.  They fail to see the
profound Euro-centrism and racism that is at the core of Weber's sociology.
 Perhaps that is also why those who see Weber as a sort of comrade-in-arms
of Marx also tend to support some of the imperialist wars fought by the
"Enlightenment West" against elements of the "culturally backward Orient."
Thus, clarification of the differences between Marx and Weber is connected
to the contemporary struggle against imperialist war.

Steve Rosenthal



        Marx:  "The discovery of gold and silver in America, the
extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal
population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies,
the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of
black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.
These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive
accumulation...These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the
colonial system...Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a
new one...If money, according to Augier, 'comes into the world with a
congenital blood-stain on one cheek,' capital comes dripping from head to
foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt."

        Weber:  " Western civilization only, cultural phenomena have
appeared which...lie in a line of development having universal significance
and value.  Only in the West does science exist at a stage of development
which we recognize today as valid...Above all is this true of the trained
official, the pillar of both the modern State and of the economic life of
the West...the world has known no rational organization of labour outside
the modern Occident...We are dealing with the connection of the spirit of
modern economic life with the rational ethics of ascetic
Protestantism....When we find again and again that, even in departments of
life apparently mutually independent, certain types of rationalization have
developed in the Occident, and only there, it would be natural to suspect
that the most important reason lay in differences of heredity.  The author
admits that he is inclined to think the importance of biological heredity
very great...when comparative racial neurology and psychology shall have
progressed beyond their present and in many ways very promising beginnings,
can we hope for even the probability of a satisfactory answer to that

        The contrast between Marx's condemnation and Weber's celebration of
Western capitalism could hardly be more vivid.  Weber, of course, was aware
of the "blood and dirt" of which Marx wrote, but Weber analyzed them as
phenomena common throughout history that had no intrinsic relationship to
the spirit and nature of capitalism.  Weber's repeated invocation of the
uniquely rational character of Western culture is ethnocentric,
Eurocentric, and historically inaccurate.

        Theory textbooks misrepresent the differences between Marx and
Weber when they claim that Weber rounded out Marx's one-sided economic
determinist interpretation of the rise of capitalism by giving more
attention to the role of ideas in historical change.  Both Marx and Weber
clearly recognized that ideas or culture played an important role in the
transformation from feudalism to capitalism.  Analysis of the Protestant
Reformation figured prominently in both Marx's and Weber's interpretations
of the rise of European capitalism.  Weber identified "rational
organization" as the decisive unique characteristic of Western capitalist
civilization, and he suspected that this cultural phenomenon would prove to
be biologically determined.  Weber argued that there was an "elective
affinity" between the Protestant Ethic and the "spirit of capitalism;" thus
the Protestant Reformation instilled in early capitalists an ascetic work
ethic that compelled them to acquire wealth through the rational
organization of production.

        Marx interpreted the Protestant Reformation as an aspect of the
struggle of the rising bourgeoisie against the feudal ruling class.  He saw
the Protestant ethic as an ideological weapon used by capitalists to
convince workers that hard work and obedience to their bosses was demanded
by god.  The Protestant ethic was meant to control the behavior of the
working class, not the behavior of the bourgeoisie, who never led the
ascetic life Weber described.  Thus, British historian E. P. Thompson
(1963) verified Marx's analysis by describing the "ideological terror"
unleashed by capitalists against workers during the industrial revolution
in England.  U.S. historian Gabriel Kolko (1961), showed that Benjamin
Franklin, portrayed by Weber as an ideal typical embodiment of the spirit
of capitalism, was no ascetic; he was fond of food, drink, and mistresses.

        Marx and Weber thus analyzed the role of ideas and the nature of
capitalism very differently.  Marx was a dialectical materialist who
insisted that ideologies arise out of material conditions and serve the
interests of contending social classes.  Weber was an idealist who insisted
that ideologies have an independent or autonomous existence, and that there
may be an "elective affinity" between ideologies and class interests.  Marx
said that early capitalists got their wealth through genocide and slavery,
while Weber says that they got their wealth through ascetic living and
rational organization of production.  Marx and Weber had very different
views of how capitalists extract profits and of how European hegemony was
established.  Marx said that profits come from exploitation; Weber said
that profits are derived from rational organization.  Marx said that
European global hegemony resulted from military conquest and economic
plunder.  Weber said that European global hegemony resulted from the unique
cultural values of Western Civilization.  Marx saw capitalism as an
exploitative and alienating system that should be condemned and overthrown,
while Weber celebrated it as a unique Western invention.

Louis Proyect
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