During the 16th and 17th century, society slowly evolved from a feudal economy to an industrial economy, giving birth to capitalism. Since then, capitalism has been the economic system in the world. Two of the prevailing critiques of capitalism are from Karl Marx and Max Weber. These two sociologists are from different times in history but they both presented sharp criticisms of capitalism that still holds to this day. This compare and contrast essay aims to contrast Karl Marx’s and Max Weber’s critique of capitalism and their theories on society. This essay revolves around the good thesis statement that although both Marx and Weber appear to be against capitalism, they have contrasting theories regarding society, what society should be like, and revolution. Whereas Marx believes that the tension between the classes will lead to a revolution that will change society, Weber believes that social and economic structures are resistant to change.
Capitalism allows private entities who have capital control trade and industry (Jahan and Mahmud 2015, 44). In this economic system, the main goal of private companies is personal gain and profit. Opposite the private companies are the laborers who sell their labor in exchange for wage. Since the private entities have control over the industry, they also have control over wages (Jahan and Mahmud 2015, 44). Thus, to maximize profit, companies try to extract more value from laborers than what they pay, resulting in exploitation. Still, almost all countries in the world were built around the capitalist economy, and as society and modes of production evolved, so did capitalism.
A Note On Marx And Weber
Karl Marx was born in 1818. He studied law in Bonn and Berlin and was heavily influenced by Hegelian philosophy. As a member of the Young Hegelians and was active in politics and philosophy at the time. He rose to be come one of the most prominent sociologists and economists. Marx published a range of his writings presenting social analyses of religion, economy, and society. By far, the most widely-read work by Marx is The Communist Manifesto. This, along with Capital detail Marx’s analysis and critique of capitalism. Marx’s critique revolves around five fundamental issues—"the injustice of exploitation, the loss of liberty through alienation, venal (mercantile) quantification, irrationality, and modern barbarism” (Lowy 2007, n.p.).
A Comparison of Karl Marx’s And Max Weber’s Theories
Marx and Weber are two of the most influential theorists of capitalism. Their theories and critiques shaped modern understanding and critiques of capitalist systems. Despite this, however, Marx’s and Weber’s analyses are fundamentally different, owing mostly to their differing critical standpoint. Karl Marx’s analysis is a straight-forward anti-capitalist critique while Max Weber’s is more an ambivalent analysis. Their analyses can be divided into the following—view of society, social stratification, improving social class, and revolution. Consequently, this compare and contrast essay shall be divided accordingly.
Views Of Society & Social Stratification
Both Marx and Weber agree that society is stratified and that this stratification is rooted in capitalism and dictates a major aspect of the life of the proletariat (Lowy 2007). This makes capitalism exploitative and unjust at its core in the view of the two sociologists. However, Marx and Weber have different interpretations of social stratification.
For Marx, there are always two classes—the “haves” and the “have-nots” (Lowy 2007). These two classes can be applied regardless of the type of society one lives in. In the feudal society, society was divided between the landlords and the peasants. Likewise, in a capitalist society, there are factory owners or those with capital and the laborers. In both cases, the former has more power than the other that allows them to exploit (Lowy 2007). Social stratification leads to the alienation of the proletariat. With the creation of commodity fetishism, the proletariat’s life revolves around labor—earning money to pay for basic commodities (Lowy 2007). As a result, commodities become divinity in the lives of the proletariat, thereby disrupting social relations founded on virtue, love, science, and conscience and causing social regression.
In contrast, Weber postulates that there are multiple classes in society and they are not divided simply between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Rather, the wealth, power, and prestige divide the classes (Kim 2017). These three correspond to class, status, and party. The ruling classes establish domination on society through a combination of these three. According to Weber, the spirit of capitalism originated from the Protestant drive to fulfill God’s command (Kim 2017). Through the accumulation of wealth, individuals can establish power, and conversely assign prestige on themselves. Thus, the originally noble pursuit for God’s will based on the affairs of the world shifted its focus on the material aspects of the world (Kim 2017). From frugality, individuals started amassing wealth for themselves; while hard work masked the obsession for wealth and prestige.
For both Marx and Weber, capitalism is the root of the social stratification that dominate people’s lives. However, the specifics differ according to their perspectives. Marx’s atheist perspective reveals two classes that revolve around their contribution to society, while Weber’s Protestant perspective reveals intricate divisions of society. The two perspectives, however, converge in the conclusion that capitalism is the root cause of social stratification.
Movement Between Social Classes
Marx’s theory does not tackle movement between the social classes. Instead he focuses on tension between the proletarians and the bourgeoisie (Wolff 2017). According to Marx, the proletariat can only achieve liberation through a communist revolution that will topple capitalism. As long as capitalism exists, the unjust systems that exploit and alienate the proletariat class will prevent anyone from this class from genuinely moving up the social ladder.
The concept of moving up the social stratification was tackled more in depth in Weber’s theory. According to Weber, an individual may successfully move up between the social classes by utilizing wealth, power, and prestige (Kim 2017). However, the individual must utilize all three because they are all interconnected, therefore one cannot be achieved without the other. This is no easy feat either because of what Weber termed the “iron cage” that keeps people in the same social status they were born in. The “iron cage” the hierarchical system and bureaucracy that rationalized the systems built by and around capitalism and keep people docile within their own iron cages or social status (Kim 2017). This iron cage makes it nearly impossible for a member of the proletariat class from gaining access to either wealth, power, or prestige.
With regard to the idea of improving one’s status or moving up the social ladder, the differences between Marx’s and Weber’s ideas differ marginally. Marx’s ideas are black-and-white in this respect—it is impossible to move up the social ladder without revolution. Meanwhile, Weber’s ideas are more nuanced—it may be possible to move up in the social stratification but he acknowledges that the capitalist system is programmed to prevent this from happening.
Karl Marx’s writings have incited communist revolutions all over the world. He is most known for radical ideas that promote aggressive revolutions to overthrow the bourgeoisie or the ruling class and replace the capitalist system with a communist one (Lowy 2017). As mentioned earlier, Marx postulates that anyone from the proletarian class cannot genuinely escape the injustices of the capitalist system designed to exploit them (Wolff 2017). As long as capitalism exists, someone, or another group, will always be in the margins, exploited because this is its fundamental mechanism. Capitalism, thus, cannot be transformed. It can only be replaced with a new socio-economic system that is not founded on the exploitation and alienation of a people.
In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels explain that one of the capitalist system maintains control of the proletariat is by inciting class antagonisms (Lowy 2017). The competition that requires the laborers to sell their services to the bourgeoisie, further divide them. Thus, instead of uniting and recognizing the injustices of the system and the ruling class, the laborers focus on getting ahead of each other in a useless rat race. However, once the proletariat recognizes this truth, according to Marx, they will unite and realize that they have the means to cease the means of production and control supply and demand, and therefore revolutionize society.
Unlike Marx who encourages revolution, Weber is more ambivalent to this topic. His work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, often appears as a justification of capitalism than a criticism of it. He does not propose any way to change society. As a matter of fact, Weber is of the opinion that capitalism cannot be overthrown due to the iron cages and the bureaucratic safeguards the ruling class has set up. Marx and Weber differ immensely in this respect.
Marx’s and Weber's interpretation of capitalist societies offer a clear picture of the mechanisms that keep society intact. However, it is clear that these two sociologists come from drastically different perspectives—Marx from an atheistic, radical perspective that is closer to the proletariat; Weber from a Protestant perspective that is more forgiving of the ruling classes. These perspectives affect their judgement of capitalism. While Weber frames the spirit of capitalist society as a corrupted version of Protestant ethic, he does not explicitly state that it is immoral. He is more complacent and simply accepts that the capitalist system is resistant to change. But Marx is more radical in that he is hopeful that the capitalist society can be overthrown and replaced.
Jahan, Sarwat and Ahmed Saber Mahmud. 2015. “What is Capitalism?” Finance & Development 52, no. 2: 44-45. International Monetary Fund. https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2015/06/pdf/basics.pdf
Kim, Sung Ho. 2017. “Max Weber.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Last modified November 27, 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/weber/#IroCagValFra
Lowy, Michael. 2007. "Marx and Weber: Critics of Capitalism." New Politics XI-2, no. 42: n.p.
Wolff, Jonathan. 2017. “Karl Marx.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Last Modified April 12, 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marx/