Weber and Marx

Weber is a critic of the narrowness of Marx, that Marx is a one-way-street of economic base/ infrastructure determinism. Weber allows for Marx and the economic base affecting the superstructure, including religious ideas; it is just that Weber recognises that ideas may have origins of their own too and may go on to influence, through social action, the make up of institutional life.
Many a neo-Marxist would agree so far with Weber: it just depends on where the stress lies.
Weber is a pessimist. Just as Marx becomes an economic determinist towards class conflict, Weber was a determinist to rationalisation and bureaucratisation: Weber discusses the evolution of an iron cage, being a technical, pyramidal, rigid, and very much dehumanized society to which there is no alternative. It becomes religionless because there is no need for religion in the powerful bureaucratic world (not because false consciousness has gone, which Marx sees as post-capitalist). Both Marx and Weber agree about the dehumanising nature of capitalism, as they see it. But for Weber there is no transition to a true emancipation, because bureaucracy is rational organisation whatever the economic base. So alienation had little to do with the ownership of the mode of production.


Marx: the econcomic base (technological level of organising economic life and class ownership) determines the superstructure including religion (also education, families, ideology).

The feudal phase was overtaken by the capitalist phase. In the capitalist phase:

  • Workers were not in control of their economic output
  • They could only sell their labour
  • Consequently they were alienated from their productive and creative abilities
  • They received a pitiful pay extracting from them a surplus to the owners of the means of production, distribution and exchange.
  • Workers received religious messages to pacify any this worldly resistance and focus their thoughts on the next imaginary world.

Eventually the capitalist phase would be overthrown to a condition where workers were in control of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and only then would religion die away as it is no more than false consciousness.
Weber in response allowed for the independence source of religion, but saw that even though something like the Protestant ethic might match and support the capitalist spirit, capitalism would have its own dynamic.

  • Bureaucratic rationality would take over
  • Social action would become purely rational: zweckrational
  • Personal goals and life would be sacrificed to the job within an organisation and its goals
  • Religion and all forms of enchantment would die away
  • Workers of all kinds, including managers, would be locked into the job
  • All would be alienated

Unlike Marx there was no relief from this. Religion as a source of enchantment dies whilst people remain alienated.


  • Weber is two way regarding ideas (including religion) and institutions
  • Weber is the most pessimistic, there is no escape and religion fades regardless

Capitalism and socialism both employ rational organisation of economic life. Weber believed that socialism was likely to be more rationalising than capitalism. Socialism would be more bureaucratic. Therefore people would still be alienated even under socialism.

Weber wrote about:

Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has obtained a level of civilization never before achieved.

(Weber, M. (1930), The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons,  New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,  181, quoted in Elwell, 1996).

Exercise: Write a letter from the nineteen year old Max Weber (1864 to 1920) to Karl Marx (1818-1883) criticising his economic determinism and position on religion. Unfortunately Marx dies so do not consider a reply.

c/o The Baumgartens

January 1883

Karl Heinrich Marx
British Museum

Dear Herr Marx

I wish you recovery from bad health.

Regarding your materialist economic determinism and role of religion; I would like to present you with my critique:

Yours faithfully

Maximilian Weber

Extra: Biographies

Maximilian Weber was born in Erfurt on April 21, 1864, and his authoritarian Protestant father was part of the German political establishment under Bismarck (having once fled Catholic Saltzburg). Weber went to the University of Heidelberg when eighteen, enjoying fencing and drinking heavily, and read Law after his father, but also a lot of theology, economics, mediaeval and Roman history. Then after three terms he went into the military at Strasbourg where he was influenced by the Baumgartens, his aunt and intellectual uncle (who rejected the political establishment).

Weber's mother was Calvinist and this much more persuasive aunt followed the Unitarian ideas of William Ellery Channing (but had a Calvinist background and spirituality). His aunt had a strong social conscience and applied her piety to how she ran the house. Weber did not share her beliefs but respected her piety. Weber loved the Baumgarten's daughter Emmy, but broke off the failed six year engagement (she was in an asylum much of the time).

In 1884 with military service over he returned for eight (interrupted) years to his parents' house who disapproved of the influence of the Baumgartens. He gradually came to hate his father's bullying ways towards his mother and himself. After this, he was away from there.

At Berlin his PhD was in The History of Commercial Societies in the Middle Ages (1889) and then he wrote Roman Agrarian History in 1891. Weber combined a new job at the University of Berlin with his full time legal practice. His favourite uncle died in 1893. He married Marianne Schnitger, a cousin who had been engaged to a close friend, in 1893, beginning an intellectual non-sexual relationship, and moved with her to the Freiburg where he took up a chair in Economics at the University. He went to Heidelberg in 1896 succeeding his once teacher Kneis as Professor in Economics. Here he got to know Ernst Troeltsch, the sociologist of religion.

However, in 1897 Weber suffered a five years long breakdown, after first telling his visiting father to leave his house and then hearing that he died a month afterwards. After a time in a sanitarium he spontaneously recovered around 1903 and went to America in 1904, which left a big impression upon him.

Back in Germany at Heidelburg he wrote on social scientifc method and The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism (1905). He was very busy again, and extended studies to the social psychology of industrial workers. He joined Tonnies and Simmel to found the German Sociological Society. Simmel shared Weber's home for a time, as did Ernst Troeltsch. He broke off this long friendship when Troeltsch administering a military hospital refused to allow Germans to visit French prisoners. Karl Jaspers, Ernst Bloch and Georg Lukacs were some visitors.

In the First World War War he ran nine military hospitals and became increasingly disillusioned and even hostile from his long held nationalism, and pursued public advice of limited war aims, fearing that the submarine war would bring in the United States to fight. In 1916 he published both The Religion of China and The Religion of India and in 1917 published Ancient Judaism. He also worked on Economy and Society, published incomplete after his death. Weber through the war became ultra-critical and promoted a rational parliamentary democracy. After being critical of a sailors' revolutionary mutiny at Kiel November 18 1918, he then favoured revolution but only towards a liberal democracy.

In 1918 he was at the University of Vienna, and in 1919 was at the University of Munich and became very politically involved in the aftermath of the war advising around the Versaille peace conference and assisting the new German Constitution, and publishing pamphlets, positioning himself against both extreme left and right (he was closer to the left but initial opposition to revolution lost him position, he also varied his precise positions and often lost support as a result). His lectures under the title General Economic History, were published after his death.

He died from pneumonia on June 14, 1920, in Munich, and his famous last words were "The truth is the truth".

Karl Heinrich Marx was born in 1818 at Trier, Germany, to a father who converted to Protestantism to keep his job as a lawyer when though the family line was of rabbis.

When seventeen Marx attended the Faculty of Law at the University of Bonn. There he became engaged to Jenny von Westphalen, the daughter of Baron von Westphalen, of Trier. Her father interested Marx in romantic literature and politics. A year later his father sent him to the University of Berlin for four years where Marx dropped Romanticism for an interest in Hegelian philosophy. He joined the Young Hegelians which involved liberal opposition to the Prussian government informed by a radical theological critique of Christianity (Bruno Bauer and David Friedrich Strauss).

The government ended the university potential career, so Marx became a journalist and moved to Paris (1843) and became radicalised to communism firstly in tune with Hegelian ideas. He was influenced by the theologian/ philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. He met Friedrich Engels.

These two moved to Brussels (and visited England) after expulsion from Paris in 1844, and Marx studied history and became a materialist regarding social cause and away from an essence of human nature.

In 1848 Marx moved back to Paris at the time of revolution and to Cologne attacking the Prussian state until May 1849, and the on to exile in London where he lived with Jenny. Engels supplied Marx with money while he studied at the British Museum reading room. Marx grappled with economics putting his own twist on liberal economic views. Marx also wrote towards political revolution keeping his eye on events on the continent.

Marx died on March 14, 1883 and was buried at Highgate Cemetery, North London.


Elwell, F. (1996), The Sociology of Max Weber; June 1999; [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed October 18, 2005, 20:05]

Pfeifer University (2005), Max Weber The Person, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed October 18, 2005, 19:30]

Pfeifer University (2005), Max Weber The Early Academic Career, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed October 18, 2005, 19:30]

Pfeifer University (2005), Max Weber The Years of Mastery, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed October 18, 2005, 23:20]

Pfeifer University (2005), Max Weber The Years of Mastery, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed October 18, 2005, 23:20]

Pfeifer University (2005), Max Weber The Exemplary Moralist, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed October 18, 2005, 23:20]

Kreis, S. (March 26 2005), The History |Guide: Lectures on Modern European History, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed October 18 2005 21:05]




Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful