What is Weber’s response to Marx? Discuss the ways in which Weber endeavors to build upon Marx’s work both in his methodological approach and in his critique of capitalist modernity. Of the two, which model of social thought are you more inclined to follow, and why?

The German philosopher Karl Löwith famously remarked that “Marx proposes a therapy while Weber has only a ‘diagnosis’ to offer”. This is a crude but succinct summary of the two men’s ideas- both had different reactions to modern capitalism, even if both had the same underlying belief that modern capitalism undermines individual freedom. For Marx, the industrial world brought about a worrying trend of segregation and inequality, whilst for Weber, this was the inevitable result of rationalization in society. Weber had a diametrically opposite view with Marx on how this capitalism started, and how Marx posited his value judgement as an objective account of the world. Weber also comes to the same negative conclusion about this modernity, because of the iron cage that results.

Weber would have disagreed with the way Marx arrived at the conclusion of capitalism being a product of the bourgeoisie’s exploitation of the proletariat. Weber argues that culture influences the economy- which led to capitalism, the exact opposite of Marx’s ideology (that economy affects culture). Marx suggests that industrialization radically changed the economy with the introduction of machines and factories, thereby changing the perception of the labourer- an individual without the means of production who is forced into a social contract with the bourgeoisie, by trading his wage-hours for survival. Thus, for Marx, the relationship between the bourgeoisie and proletariat is a product of the changes to individual’s economic status brought about by the introduction of machinery, or other means to production. Marx did not see a link between religion and capitalism, even remarking that “religion is the opium of the people”, or a man-made construct to alleviate the difficulties faced by the proletariat in this world. This is diametrically opposite for Weber, who saw the changes of the economy as products of changes in religious thinking, or shifts towards Calvinism. In Weber’s thought process, differences in economic status were due to differences in the individuals’ cultural beliefs. Raised by a Calvinist mother himself, Weber separated European society into Catholicism and Calvinism, saying that the former “places more value on a life which is as secure as possible, even if this should be on a smaller income.” On the other hand, “business leaders and owners of capital… tend to be predominantly Protestant”. This is the basis of his argument in The Protestant Ethic, insisting that divergences from Catholicism brought about a religious link with between Calvinism and economic prosperity by inculcating values of economic efficiency and rationality into their life; the Calvinists constantly live in fear of being accepted by God, and tirelessly work as efficiently as possible as a token of esteem to Him. This led to accumulation of capital among the Calvinists, who continued to find ways to be more productive, and brought their ideas around the world during Reformation and discovery of the Americas. For Weber, this is how capitalist modernism began. Thus, Weber’s theory that cultural differences affected the economy stands in direct contrast with Marx’s theory of capitalism.

Another issue Weber had with Marx was his empathy and his method of sociology. Weber insisted that the sociology (or science, as he refers to in Science As A Vocation) should be bereft of value judgements. This can also be observed from the differing ideas the two men had on the start of capitalist modernity. As one may have already inferred from Marx’s works, Marx has started off from the assumption that capitalism is a negative economic force. Marx immediately antagonizes the upper class, or the bourgeoisie, without being neutral to either party to inquire on the beginnings of capitalist modernity. Weber argues that Marxism is not objective, even if Marx presented his ideas as such (interestingly Marx rejected Hegel’s theory of idealism, imposing his own materialist views on Hegel’s idea of dialectic history). Going further into his argument, Weber sets the limitations of science, saying that it cannot dictate values for individuals, and that the individual sets out his own values. This links back to the previous point on Weber’s fundamental difference of opinion with Marx, as it explains why Weber chose to empathize with the individuals and see their values, not imposing his own value judgement as Marx did with communism. As such, Weber said that Marx’s science is prejudiced and imposing the wrong value judgement on capitalism because it is subjective in its origin.

The irony in this differences of opinions on the inception of capitalist modernity is that Weber does reach the same negative conclusion on capitalism. To understand this, one can compare Weber’s iron cage with Marx’s perception of power in the capitalist modernity. The iron cage is a paradox inherent in Weber’s account of rationalism and depicts the entrapment of individuals into a rigid, bureaucratic system in which the individual is a cog on the wheel, and has no option of leaving the system. This is caused by the irrationality of capitalism- to make more money for the sake of making money. This is paradoxical in nature because capitalism started out on rational ideas; to make money to secure one’s standard of living (or entry to heaven) is considered rational; it was a means towards a religious end. As society rationalizes itself, a bureaucracy is the natural outcome, because the bureaucracy is completely rational and works towards set goals. The stronger the bureaucracy and its influence on the state, the more efficient the state becomes in improving the welfare of its people. However, this is exactly what Marx predicts; that political and economic power would be concentrated in a shrinking group of elite who have the means to exploit the proletariat. Weber also has the same sentiments of such a bureaucracy, referring to it as the iron cage because anyone born into this system must adhere to the rules set by a bureaucracy as per social contract, or be punished by the laws of the state. This leads to a system bereft of individuality, where “specialists [are] without spirit, sensualists [are] without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.” This would also build upon the idea of alienation in Marxism, which entails that the “worker does not affirm himself in his work but denies himself, feels miserable and unhappy” Weber uses the idea of rationality to explain how we have come to this state of capitalism today, and reaches the same conclusion as Marx did with alienation. The individual thus loses his freedom to an irrational system, and Weber characteristically offers no solution to that.

As mentioned at the start of the essay, Marx offers a solution to the ills of the modern capitalist world- albeit one that hasn’t been successfully acted out, whilst Weber only laments the loss of freedom for the individual in an irrational modernity. I would personally lean towards Marx’s conception of capitalist modernity. The main reason for this is that Marx’s idea of a segregation of two distinct classes is a universal concept that can be constantly reinterpreted to fit different cultures and societies across the world, as shown in world systems theory, which suggests that whole countries now take the title of proletariat against bigger, richer countries that resemble the bourgeoisie. In contrast, Weber’s segregation of Catholics and Protestants is far too narrow and ethnocentric, ignoring factors such as literacy rates and geopolitics. As with Durkheim, Weber uses a static point in history as his evidence, while Marx, while acknowledging the Industrial Revolution as a point of critical juncture in the history of capitalism, bases his ideas on the evolution of history, an idea he borrowed from Hegel. In other words, Marx’s theory is dynamic in its nature, and does not confine itself to a certain country or specific era. This is because Marx bases his theory on economy, or power, as the cause, and its impact on culture, as the effect. Unlike culture, the dynamics of power and economics are universal and hard to find fault with. Weber’s basis on culture, ironically leads to many questions regarding how he defined culture and how he could prove that all Protestants adhered to the same doctrine. Perhaps this is why Marx has an entire school of thought ascribed to his philosophy, while Weber’s most significant contribution to the world is his concept of the iron cage.


The last of my short essays for SC3101. Got an A- even though I spent a lot less time on this. It’s been a strangely pleasant journey on this module, with me getting some of my best grades in essays for a discipline I generally disagree with. I did, however, learn about Marx in detail for the first time and he’s been such a huge influence on the way I currently think about the world and politics (though that doesn’t mean I support Sanders). And at least the teachers for this module are clear on their rubrics for essays, unlike the flimsy, whimsical grades I get for EU1101E. Fuck you, History department.

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