Karl Marx and Max Weber



Karl Marx and Max Weber are recognized as two of the most prominent theorists of the 19th century. Many might argue that there are many similarities between these sociologist's theories, however although Marx and Weber both examined similar ideas, they noticeably came to two drastically different conclusions. During this essay I am going to compare and contrast the ideas of these two influential sociologists to see whether there are any similarities in their understanding of society. I will attempt to gather enough evidence in order to draw conclusions on whether Marx and Weber are indeed as different as is so often claimed or whether their similarities are significant enough to class them as having comparable understandings in their key ideas.

Marx took inspiration from Hegel, and consequently came up with the idea of base and superstructure. The base is the relationships that arise as a result of production and the superstructure are the ideas and relationships that the base relations determine (S.H.Rigby). He was also strongly influenced by the classical political economists who came up with the labour theory of value. This states that the real ‘cost' of a product was determined by how much labour went into it (Evans). From these and other influences Marx came up with his extremely influential ideas about the economy as a whole.

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Weber on the other hand, was influenced by Kant who said that when we try to explain something, we can only give one interpretation. From Kant, Weber learnt that to understand the human sciences, you have to understand the motivations of the people involved. Weber explained that you must look at the historical contexts and reject the idea of universal laws because of the fact that people have free will. Weber was also influenced by ‘The German model', which seemed to motivate the majority of his work (Giddens).

In Marx's opinion, the mode of production is what shapes history; he believed that the ways in which people make products is the catalyst that governs the Western society. Marx suggested that as workers lost control over what they produced, they were forced to sell their labour and therefore be exploited which inevitably alienated them from their work. Marx argued that as Capitalism expands, competition increases which inevitably means power will fall to an increasingly smaller minority, which will leave a division between “The property owners and the property-less workers” (Marx)

On the other hand, Weber disregarded exploitation as important in Capitalism and instead thought that Capitalism was strongly correlated to the protestant faith. He based this on the protestant belief that “the fulfilment of duty in worldly affairs” is “the highest form of moral activity”. Weber interpreted this as an encouragement to Protestants to work hard and save money which in turn led to a division of labour and class (Sztompka).

Firstly, I am going to outline some similarities within Marx and Weber's theories. The first is the idea that “individuals are ruled by abstractions”, which is the foundation to both theorists' ideas. An example of this could be taken from their views on feudalism. Feudal economics meant that people didn't want to make a profit but instead sold products at a reasonable price for their ‘use value' (Marx). Weber's explanation of feudalism is that ‘private property is a result of military violence' within a political structure. Marx, On the other hand explains feudalism as a result of ‘the means of production within an economic structure' (Mannheim).

Another similarity that could be drawn is that Marx and Weber both believed capitalism to be largely based on irrationality. Both try to understand this irrationality through the medium of religion, although it differs in significance. The Weberian viewpoint argues that religion is the key to explaining the origins of Capitalism. In ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism', Weber argues that the ideas within the Protestant faith, combine with technology to shape society (Weber). In contrast, Marx believes that religion is nothing more than a method used to spread the ruling class ideology to the working class. It could be suggested that the arguments that Marx and Weber made, somewhat parallel each other; the main difference which sets them apart is that in Weber's opinion God dominates the individuals actions, whereas in Marx's argument capital controls their actions.

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Now I will outline a few differences, one of the most prominent being that Marx tends to focus on economic influences and Weber tends to focus on political. The Marxists argue that during capitalism the Bourgeoisie exploit the Proletariats for their ‘surplus value', this is the profit that they make after paying the Proletariat for their labour. Marx argued that power is concentrated in the ruling class (the bourgeoisie) who use their power to exploit the proletariat. Marxism admits the importance of the state but argues that the state promote the ruling class' interests in order to keep the wealthy happy. In contrast, Weber focuses on the political and generalises it to the economic. He emphasised that economics alone could not explain the class system. (Max Weber, An intellectual portrait page 86). Marx and Weber's views start to differ when it comes to stratification. Weber introduced the idea of ‘status groups' which differ from classes due to them being based around communities. The Weberian view is that all societies can be divided into these ‘status groups'. Weber argues that it is due to Marx's class centred views that made his predictions on future societies fail. (Coser)

There are many differences between Marx and Weber's views on social class. Firstly, Marx puts a huge emphasis on structures that he believed to govern behaviour including the ‘modes of production' that he believed social classes were defined by. In comparison, Weber argued that such structures were unimportant in defining social classes and believed they were a result of individual's behaviour. Secondly, Marx argues that social groups are created around class alone. Weber criticizes this view due to Marx's view being unable to define groups based around inequality. Weber argues that other factors are involved in the formation of social groups. Thirdly, Marx's view is that class relations are based on economic exploitation, whereas Weber argues that class relations are more dominance based and economic conflicts are only a struggle between the dominant person and the inferior person. Finally, Marx argues that class division is directly linked to the relationship an individual has to production. Weber argues that groups organise themselves in order to gain access to the market place, therefore suggesting that the individual plays a significant role in the formation of social groups. The reasoning that these theorists used in explaining social class, seem to remain significant in most of their theories. (Morrison)

It is apparent that the theorists had differing opinions about the division of labour. In Marx's opinion, when the industrialization occurred, co-operation changed into something he called ‘complex co-operation'. This, according to the Marxist view meant that the skills that once belonged to the individual were combined with the division of labour; therefore the individual lost their skill and became alienated from their work and inevitably themselves. He therefore argued that the division of labour was negative because it forced men into being part of ‘a system' that created conflicting classes (Morrison). Weber had differing views on the division of labour, arguing that “One's duty in a calling is what is most characteristic of the social ethic of capitalistic culture, and is in a sense the fundamental basis of it” (Weber). He believed that the division of labour was in fact positive because it enabled society to form many classes. He argued that the division of labour allowed individuals to develop their skills and therefore unlike the Marxists view, thought the division of labour to be an encouraging movement denying the idea that the individual is alienated.

However, Marx and Weber had conflicting ideas on alienation. Marx's theory seems to be closely linked to the enlightenment; he thought socialism was inevitable, arguing that in pre socialised societies individuals were alienated from their work and others around them (Nisbet). On the other hand, Weber's theory of alienation comes from his views that capitalism and socialism are manifestations of rationalization. He coined rationalization as ‘the conversion of social values and relationships from the primary, communal and traditional shapes they once held to the larger, impersonal and bureaucratized shapes on modern life.' For Weber, alienation comes from an inversion of rationalism, on the basis that rationalism is ultimately reason destroying (Nisbet). It could be argued that in ‘The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism', Weber suggests that individuals alienate themselves from the things that ascenticism creates (Weber). Many people might suggest that the doubts Weber projects in the writings are inexistent in those of Marx. Therefore perhaps Weber had a more pessimistic viewpoint influencing his theories.

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Overall, I have looked at Marx and Weber's opinions on religion, capitalism, class, the division of labour and stratification. Now I will evaluate both sociologists' key ideas. One criticism of Marx is that his theories are bias and show economic determinism, similarly, Weber shows determinism to rationalisation, and therefore it could be argued that both lack validity. Marx also exaggerates the importance of economic power, and fails to consider other possible sources of power such as political power. In contrast Weber emphasises the role of political power and generalises it to economic power. Both methods could be seen as minimalistic, and therefore do not offer us a whole explanation, but instead only one interpretation. Many might argue that Marx suggests that the working class are incapable of having their own ideas and simply absorb the ideas of the ruling classes. As a whole, it could be argued that Marx treats humans as commodities and ignores human relations. He gives the impression that during Capitalism, the bourgeoisie exploits the proletariat without any remorse, whereas in fact many might argue that they give their workers a fair wage and do not exploit them at all. Weber's argument that Capitalism is based on the protestant faith could also be criticised. Many might argue that in order to have the ambition to work hard and save money you do not have to be a protestant and therefore the basis on which Weber develops many of his theories could very easily be destabilized.

The question of whether work is central to life could be raised to criticize both Marx's and Weber's theories. They put a huge emphasis on the economy and wealth and suggest that being in the working class is a bad thing. Many people might argue however that these things are unimportant and therefore that too much emphasis is placed on work in society, forgetting about other perhaps more substantial factors, such as family life. Therefore as a whole, Marx and Weber fail to consider individual differences and perhaps gender differences also. During the time in which Marx wrote his theories, the majority of workers were male and therefore it could be argued that Marx's theories cannot be generalised to women and as such cannot be generalised to the population as a whole. Therefore in today's society it could be argued that Marx's theories lack external validity due to them being extremely andocentric.

All in all, many sociologists might argue that both Marx and Weber each offer one layer of interpretation to put over complex reality. They propose two different explanations, both of which can be criticized. However, their theories have been prominent for centuries, which therefore suggests that both Marx and Weber's came up with two of the most influential theories of their time. Some sociologists might argue that Weber's contribution was perhaps more subtle than Marx's, nonetheless it is clear that by studying both Marx and Weber's theories on Capitalism, we gain a greater understanding of Capitalism as a whole.


Coser, L. Masters of sociological thought: Ideas in historical and social context. Page 228, 229, 230

Evans, M. Karl Marx. Pages 96, 97

Giddens, A. Politics and sociology in the thought of Max Weber. Pages 40, 41, 42

Mannheim, K. From Max Weber; essays in sociology. Pages 46, 47

Marx, K. Karl Marx early writings. Page 322

Marx, K. (1847). The Communist Manifesto.

Morrison, K. Marx Durkheim Weber, formations of modern social thought.

Morrison, K. Marx Durkheim Weber; Formations of social thought. Pages 54, 55, 56, 57

Nisbet, R. A. The sociological Tradition. Page 285

Nisbet, R. A. The sociological Tradition. Page 292, 293, 294

S.H.Rigby. Marxism and history, A critical introduction, second edition. Pages 176, 177, 178.

Sztompka, P. The sociology of social change. Page 238

Weber, M. The Protestant ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Page 54

Weber, M. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.