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Marx, Weber, and the Motivators of History

Any examination of history is inevitably colored by the observer’s understanding of the principles underlying the particular events. It is possible for men to observe identical occurrences and yet cite radically different causes. Each man’s vision of the good, whether conscious or subconscious, directly informs what he perceives, and this is evident in the sociological works of both Karl Marx and Max Weber. Although both authors share an atheistic perspective, their respective understandings of the underlying concepts behind the emergence of industrial capitalism and the rise of the modern society could not be more disparate. Let us examine the differing perspectives on the true motivators of history and societal development these two great fathers of sociology expressed through their well-known works, The Communist Manifesto and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 

            As Marx preceded Weber, it would seem fitting to first explore his conception of the world. The primary question which Marx and Weber treat in common is the question of how we arrived at our current state of omnipresent capitalistic social Darwinism. Where Marx speaks everywhere of the alienation of the worker, Weber, too, points out the omnipresent characteristic of a capitalistic economy that consigns followers of any other ethical system to the poorhouse.[1] Marx’s proposal is shockingly simple. The materialism we observe today – what Weber will call  the aura sacra fames, or “greed for gold” – is, for Marx, expressed through oppression.[2],[3] To overstate the extent to which materialism factors into Marx’s understanding of history regardless of time and space would be nearly impossible, as he begins The Communist Manifesto with the sentence, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”[4] Marx clearly believes that the principle which directs history is a material one; it is a constant narrative of injustice and material oppression that is progressing towards his utopian vision. Describing the proletarian conception of the bourgeoisie, with which he is clearly sympathetic, Marx writes, “Law, morality, religion, are to him [the proletarian] so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.”[5] There is nothing which precedes or informs the materialism of the oppressed or the oppressor in this narrative. Law, morality, and religion are merely a thin and transparent veneer on the oppression of the proletariat which do not seem to have any particular influence on society aside from a distracting gloss.

“Undoubtedly,” it will be said, “religious, moral, philosophical, and juridical ideas have                been modified in the course of historical development. But religion, morality, philosophy,         political science, and law, constantly survived this change.”…What does this accusation                    reduce itself to? The history of all past society has consisted in the development of class                         antagonisms, antagonisms that assumed different forms at different epochs.[6]


Marx here reduces the role of religion, morality, philosophy, political science, and law to being mere veneers or channels through which the underlying idea of class antagonism and oppression was able to express itself.

Weber, on the other hand, takes an extremely nuanced opposing stance. He, too, believes that discounting the effect of what he terms aura sacra fames has had on society, or imagining that the greed for gold experienced in modern capitalism is an exclusively modern phenomenon are the “illusions of modern romanticists” and yet his views do not agree with those of Marx. [7] Indeed, rather than taking for granted the superstructure of Marxist sociological thought, which places economic factors at the center of religion, law, and politics, he observes that the rise of capitalism, especially in its American form, originated not from the ventures of businessmen in southern colonies, but from the culture promoted by the religious Protestant settlers of New England. Weber’s argument in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is not that avaricious pursuits of wealth did not exist before Protestantism and Capitalism, but that the acquisition of wealth took on an intrinsically respectable aspect under the influence of Calvinist Protestant thought. He observes that in Catholic Medieval Florence, the capitalistic spirit was “considered ethically unjustifiable, or at best to be tolerated” but now, under the Protestant ethic, the capitalistic spirit is “not mere business astuteness, it is an ethos.”[8],[9] It is only now, in the shadow of the great European and American overthrow of Ancient and Medieval thought and culture, that we see maxims such as Benjamin Franklin’s quip, “time is money,” which would once have been “proscribed as the lowest sort of avarice, and as an attitude entirely lacking in self-respect” being lauded and approved.[10]

Weber does not see the avarice of modernity as proceeding directly from the avarice of ages past, though they certainly have come to share a great likeness. But Weber believes there is something more behind the sudden rise of capitalism that cannot merely be explained by economic factors and the broad Marxist superstructure. The assumptions of what Weber patronizingly terms “naive historical materialism” seem, to Weber, to read a modern capitalistic mindset into the past and to superimpose it on peoples who would have found capitalism distasteful and pointless.[11] Instead, the idea that undergirds the entirety of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is the notion that perhaps ideas, culture, theology, and philosophy actually are the shapers of culture, rather than an anachronistic raw materialism. Of course there have always been materialists. But it is not the despised banker, nor the profit-hungry Dutchman willing to sell his soul for profit who influenced the rise of the capitalistic society. Instead, we can observe that these ideas rose out of a religious revolution.  Weber writes that Calvinism added to Christianity “The idea of the necessity of proving one’s faith in worldly activity,” and yet “Their ethical ideals and the practical results of their doctrines were all based on that [the salvation of the soul] alone, and were the consequences of purely religious motives.”[12],

These rivalling assumptions – Marx’s vision of materialism as the centerpiece of the historical narrative and Weber’s theory of the primacy of ideas – both describe and attribute causes to the rise of the bourgeoisie and the advent of the modern capitalistic society. However, they have tremendously differing implications on the nature of history as well as on our interpretations of the modern world. Ultimately, these assumptions inform us that the authors perceive materialism and ideas in diametrically opposing ways: for Marx, materialism drives ideas. For Weber, it is quite the opposite. For Marx, that which has always been contested, the struggle of power, must finally come to a satisfactory end by which the conundrum of material inequality is solved by his proposed communist ideology. It is not that Marx despises this materialism; rather, he embraces it and seeks to satisfy and unify through it. For Weber, society, culture, and economics are shaped by ideas, and thus they seem to matter immensely more than a mere veneer on a ubiquitous capitalistic materialistic desire. Ideas, theology, philosophy: these are the motivators of the world. Weber seems, through his denial of materialistic historical analysis, to be pointing us ever so subtly away from such an economic focus, and to instead push through to the importance of the abstract. Though the ideas of both of these authors have permeated the world and still cling to our modern society today, we can see that behind their analyses, these two men see similar worlds of actors being animated by radically differing motivations, desires, and impulses.


[1] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribner, 1958), 54.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels, The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978), 473.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., 482.
[6] Ibid., 489.
[7] Weber, The Protestant Ethic, 56.
[8] Ibid., 75.
[9] Ibid., 51.
[10]Ibid., 56.
[11] Ibid., 60.
[12] Ibid., 121.
[13] Ibid., 90.



Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader, Edited by Robert C. Tucker. New York: Norton, 1978.
Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Scribner, 1958.