Max Weber’s Critique of Marx

In my post “Use Values and Corn Laws, Aristotelian Marxists and High Tories” I argued that Marx’s analysis of capitalism contains some insights that can be useful to those who, like me, reject his egalitarianism and atheism. The post was mainly taken from a longer writing project, which has since been completed, but won’t be coming out for some time. In the same project I also argue that Marx’s analysis is missing some key insights that a necessary to understand capitalism. Particularly, I argue that Max Weber was right to criticize the excessive materialist determinism in Marx’s economic thought. Marx is surely right that the conditions of production influence human social life, but man is a rational animal, and his reasoning can never be entirely reduced to the “superstructure” concealing a material “infrastructure.” As Weber put it:

While we have abandoned the outworn belief according to which the totality of cultural phenomena can be deduced as a product or a function of “material” constellations of interests, we for our part still believe that the analysis of social phenomena and cultural processes, from the particular perspective of their economic conditionality and implications, has been a creative and fruitful scientific principle, and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future, provided it is applied carefully and without dogmatic prejudice. Conceived as a “world view” or as the common denominator of the causal explanation of historical reality, the so-called “materialist conception of history” must be categorically rejected[.][1]

Weber’s most famous demonstration of the inadequacy of the materialist conception of history is found in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.[2] Marx had held that the ‘material’ conditions of capitalism were of themselves sufficient to bring about a capitalist economy. That is to say, once there was a sufficiently elaborate division of labor, a division of labor from capital, and sufficiently developed exchange markets in capital, labor, and their products,[3] the economy would tip decisively toward a system in which exchange value dominated.[4]

But Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic argued that the “material” conditions of capitalism were not of themselves sufficient to bring about the capitalist system. An “ideal” condition was also necessary—the “spirit” (Geist) of capitalism.

Weber notes that in early modern Europe the systems of production for certain goods had all the material conditions of capitalism, but were nonetheless non-capitalist systems still dominated by use value. And when these systems were suddenly transformed into capitalist systems this often happened without any major “material” development, simply through the advent of a new spirit among entrepreneurs. Weber gives as an example the production of cloth by putters-out (Verleger) and peasants (Bauern). The putters out bought cloth from the peasants at traditional prices, and sold them again to their habitual customers. There was little attempt to improve the quality of the wares, or to expand the pool of customers beyond the natural expansion of the customers’ families. Working hours were short. Relations between the various putters-out were friendly, and there was little attempt at competition between them.[5]

All the material conditions of capitalism were present here: division of labor, division of labor from capital, and exchange markets in capital, labor, and cloth. However, the spirit in which the business was conducted was not capitalistic, but rather what Weber calls ‘traditionalistic.’ A traditionalistic spirit does not attempt to maximize the gains of economic activity, but rather merely to earn as much money as he is accustomed to by the methods to which he is accustomed. As Weber puts it, “a man does not ‘by nature’ wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much money as is necessary for that purpose.”[6] To put it in more Aristotelian terms, the “traditionalist” wants a definite number of useful goods necessary to live the good life as he conceives of it. The concrete conception of the good life is often (as in Weber’s example) determined by what is customary for a person of a certain “station” (Stand) in life.

Such a form of economic life does not exclude all innovation and growth, but innovation and growth are much slower and of a different kind than in a capitalist system. In a traditionalist economy emphasis is placed on handing down the traditions of excellence in a particular practice. ‘Practice’ can here be taken in its MacIntyrean sense; in the practicing and teaching of the practice, “human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.[7] This extension refers mostly to the ideal goodsinternal to the practice itself, but of course it results also in certain innovations in the material goods produced as well. Capitalist innovation and growth on the other hand, proceed, by replacing traditional forms of economic practice with new ones, and at the same time by replacing old conceptions of the good life and the goods useful to it by new conceptions.[8]

Let us return to Weber’s example of cloth production. The form of production changes when certain entrepreneurs go about things in a different spirit:

Now at some time this leisureliness was suddenly destroyed, and often entirely without any essential change in the form of organization, such as the transition to a unified factory, to mechanical weaving, etc. What happened was, on the contrary, often no more than this: some young man from one of the putting-out families went out into the country, carefully chose weavers for his employ, greatly increased the rigour of his supervision of their work, and thus turned them from peasants [Bauern] into labourers [Arbeiter]. On the other hand, he would begin to change his marketing methods by so far as possible going directly to the final consumer, would take the details into his own hands, would personally solicit customers, visiting them every year, and above all would adapt the quality of the product directly to their needs and wishes. At the same time he began to introduce the principle of low prices and large turnover. There was repeated what everywhere and always is the result of such a process of rationalization: those who would not follow suit had to go out of business. The idyllic state collapsed under the pressure of a bitter competitive struggle, respectable fortunes were made; and not lent out at interest, but always reinvested in the business. The old leisurely and comfortable attitude toward life gave way to a hard frugality in which some participated and came to the top, because they did not wish to consume but to earn, while others who wished to keep on with the old ways were forced to curtail their consumption.[9]

Such innovators were nearly always opposed by “moral indignation” on the part of the traditionalists.[10] Nevertheless, the innovators themselveswere by no means merely greedy adventurers. On the contrary, in order to be successful they had to be men of strong self-discipline and ethical principle.[11] They devoted their lives to the pursuit of an unlimited increase in money, and yet their eyes were free from the glint of avarice so evident in the eyes of ‘traditionalist’ Neapolitan street vendors. What really motivates such persons, Weber argues, is a distinct moral ideal— an ideal of conscientious labor in a worldly calling, and of the accumulation of wealth at the service of the material progress of society.

Weber argued that this ideal was related to the transformation of values brought about by the Protestant Reformation. There was first a rejection of the monastic ideal of contempt for the world, and a proportionately higher valuation of worldly activity.[12] This was part of the complex process that Charles Taylor calls “the affirmation of ordinary life.”[13] Ancient and medieval conceptions of a hierarchy in the goods of life saw the mundane activities of commercial and domestic life as subordinate to higher goals. Thus the aristocratic, warrior ethos had prized military virtue and political action above wealth-getting and family life. The aristocratic warrior or statesman was supposed to cultivate a certain disdain for mere material wealth; of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus it is said: “Our spoils he kick’d at; / And looked upon things precious as they were / The common muck of the world.”[14] Similarly, the Socratic, philosophical ideal of autotelic contemplation of the truth saw worldly possessions as a distraction from the higher activity of philosophy: “May I count him rich who is wise,” Socrates prays, “and as for gold, may I possess so much of it as only a temperate man might bear and carry with him.”[15] Christian monastic and mendicant ideals synthesized both ideals with the Christian conception of a life devoted to the love and worship of God and the service of fellow creatures. Disdain for material wealth was radicalized in the virtue of poverty.[16] But under the influence of Protestantism—and later, deism—, such hierarchical views of the human good were abandoned, and the basic human activities of production and re-production, commercial and family life, came to be seen as the primary loci of human fulfillment.

On Luther’s view, work in a worldly calling (Beruf) takes on a special importance. Luther’s work ethic was, however, still “traditionalistic,” and opposed to limitless pursuit of profit. But Calvinism put more emphasis on rational organization and domination of the world as serving the glory of God. Moreover, second generation Calvinists saw the increase of wealth as a sign of predestination.[17] Later theorists have argued that Weber somewhat exaggerated the importance of this point, but even in Weber it is seen as only one factor in a complex process.[18]

Protestant influences helped shape the rise of “instrumental reason,” and the new form of mathematical and technological science associated with the so-called “scientific revolution.” Modern mathematical science is the key to understanding modernity. Technological science in turn helped bring about the industrial revolution, which ended traditionalist forms of economic life, and divided society into modern classes. In the new industrial economy forces of competition favored those capitalists who were imbued with the spirit of capitalism.

The spirit of capitalism, as Weber describes it, has an ascetic character; consumption is forgone for the sake of the accumulation of capital to be invested and re-invested in an endless spiral of economic growth. This spirit can be found in a number of forms: preeminently it is found in the entrepreneur willing to risk everything in uncertain investments for the sake of growth. But in a modified form it is found in the “bureaucratic” spirit of the office workers, accountants, and technicians engaged in the management of the complex systems built by the entrepreneur, and even in the “blue-collar” worker committed to being a “hard-working” and “productive” member of society. The forces of competition and other social pressures perpetuate the spirit necessary for the running of the system, and make participation in it unavoidable. Weber famously describes the resulting world of work as an “iron cage” from which no one can escape.[19]

Weber’s analysis of the spirit of capitalism seems to me to provide a necessary complement to the Marxian analysis. But it is not itself entirely complete. Weber describes the persons who inhabit the iron cage as Nietschean “last men”:

For of the last stage of this cultural development [die »letzten Menschen« dieser Kulturentwicklung], it might well be truly said: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart [Fachmenschen ohne Geist, Genußmenschen ohne Herz]; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”[20]

The “specialists without spirit” are clearly those imbued with the spirit of capitalism, but the “sensualists without heart” seem to be imbued with a somewhat different spirit: one that I call “the spirit of consumerism.” Capitalisms need to stimulate demand leads it to appeal to sensual appetite. It develops products ever-better at making such an appeal, and markets them by conveying a conception of the good life as consisting in hedonistic consumption. But such a conception of the good life is the basis for a spirit quite different from the disciplined spirit of capitalism.

Marxist thinkers after Weber have tended to reject Weber’s account of the “spirit” of capitalism, but their concept of “ideology” sometimes plays a similar role: a super-structural condition that makes individuals useful to the system. They do not, however, see much tension between what makes a good worker and what makes a good consumer: the good consumer is the one who consumes the sorts of easy comforts that enable him to be a good worker.[21] But the tension seems to me to have become ever clearer since the time of Weber. I will explore that tension in a later post.


[1] Max Weber, “The ‘Objectivity’ of Knowledge in Social Science and Social Policy,” in: Max Weber, Collected Methodological Writings, ed. Hans Henrik Bruun and Sam Whimster (London: Routledge, 2012) pp. 100-138, at p. 111; cf. Wolfgang J. Mommsen, “Max Weber as a Critic of Marxism,” in: The Canadian Journal of Sociology 2.4 (1977), pp. 373-398.

[2] The following paragraphs are again adapted from the longer writing project mentioned above.

[3] Note that I say “developed” exchange markets, not “free” markets. Capitalist markets are not the automatic result of unregulated economic activity, but rather pre-suppose elaborate cultural institutions. This is particularly evident in the case of the markets for capital, which require the social construction of such institutions as limited liability corporations funded by the sale of shares, and fractional reserve banks offering loans at interest.

[4] He thought further that the capitalist system was a necessary stage toward a future communist system in which use value would again dominate us, but this fantasy need not detain us here.

[5] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons, (London: Allen and Unwin, 1930), pp. 66-67; Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus in: Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie, vol. 1, 9th ed. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1988), pp. 17-206, at p. 51.

[6] Weber, The Protestant Ethic, p. 60; Die protestantische Ethik, p. 44.

[7] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2007), p. 187; cf. Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., “The Good, the Highest Good, and the Common Good,” in: The Josias (February 3, 2015): http://thejosias.com/2015/02/03/the-good-the-highest-good-and-the-common-good § 31.

[8] Ronald Reagan’s favorite economic writer, George Gilder, celebrates this fact in many passages of his famous defense of neoliberalism Wealth and Poverty (2nd ed., Washington, DC: Regnary, 2012). For example, p.319: “In every economy there is one crucial and definitive conflict […] the struggle between past and future, between the existing configuration of industries that the industries that will someday replace them. It is a conflict between established factories, technologies, formations of capital, and the ventures that may soon make them worthless[.]” And (quoting Josef Schumpeter), pp. 320-321: “Creative destruction is the essential fact about capitalism…it is by nature a form or method of economic change, and not only never is, but never can be stationary…the fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist machine in motion comes from the new consumer goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates.” And (from the Prologue to the 2nd ed., p. xxxii: “Leading entrepreneurs—from Sam Walton to Mike Milken to Larry Page to Mark Zuckerberg—did not ascend a hierarchy; they created a new one.”

[9] Weber, The Protestant Ethic, pp. 67-68; Die protestantische Ethik, p. 52.

[10] Weber, The Protestant Ethic, p. 69; Die protestantische Ethik, p. 53.

[11] Weber, The Protestant Ethic, p. 69; Die protestantische Ethik, pp. 53-54.

[12] Weber, The Protestant Ethic, ch. 3; Die protestantische Ethik, I,3.

[13] Taylor, Sources of the Self, Part III.

[14] Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Act II, Scene II.

[15] Plato, Phaedrus, 279c; trans. R. Hackforth, in: Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (eds.), The Collected Dialogues of Plato (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961).

[16] For the incorporation of Greek philosophical ideals in monastic life see: Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God (New York: Fordham University Press, 1961); for the incorporation of ideals of military and political virtue see: Stratford Caldecott, Not as the World Gives: The Way of Creative Justice (Kettering: Angelico Press, 2014), pp. 145-148, 193-203.

[17] Weber, The Protestant Ethic, ch. 4; Die protestantische Ethik, II,1.

[18] See: Hughes, The End of Work, ch. 2.

[19] Weber, The Protestant Ethic, p. 181; Die protestantische Ethik, p. 203.

[20] Weber. The Protestant Ethic, p. 183; Die protestantische Ethik, p. 204.

[21] See, for example: Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Englightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), especially pp. 94-136: “The Culture Industry.”

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One thought on “Max Weber’s Critique of Marx

  1. This is an excellent survey of the relevant factors. However, it’s unclear to me that the pre-capitalist world of innocent consumption is obviously preferable to the capitalist one of austerity and re-investment. The world of innocent consumption sounds great, until I think about the bubonic plague, high infant mortality, high maternal mortality in childbirth, famine, ergot poisoning, short life expectancy, widespread illiteracy, etc. It isn’t obvious why I should prefer those things to the economic pressures of capitalism. Peter Thiel wrote an interesting and thoughtful argument against “Edenism” and in favor of a Christian technological optimism in First Things:

    https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/06/against-edenism?fbclid=IwAR2EMOjOn6pIHkMr82Z8mqAN5TDtcCTmIRySJPqhs_ll8et3cWmbUfoXhys

    Also, if you read the Latin poets of the Augustan era, they engage in Utopian fantasies where men live again in a Golden Age without sailing, or war, or trade, or any of the other banes of the “modern world.” Hunter-gatherers and pastoralists tend to find agricultural life slavish, base, and confining, and many (not all) former subsistence farmers said the same about industrial life when it was new, and many former industrial workers now say the same about the new service economy. The fact that human beings often don’t like change doesn’t say much about the objective goodness of the change.

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