The Origin of Modern Capitalism. A Comparison of Max Weber and Karl Marx

Term Paper, 2003

30 Pages, Grade: excellent


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 The Model of Max Weber
2.1 Weber's concept of capitalism
2.1.1 Older Forms of Capitalism
2.1.2 Modern Occidental Capitalism
2.2 Conditions of the emergence of capitalism
2.2.1 Material or institutional condition factors
2.2.2 Ascetic Protestantism and the "Capitalist Spirit"
2.3 Paradoxical upheavals
2.3.1 Paradox of secularization
2.3.2 Paradox of rationalization

3 The Model of Karl Marx
3.1 History as a history of class struggles
3.2 The so-called "original accumulation"

4 The models of Weber and Marx in comparison
4.1 Similarities
4.1.1 The New Social Values of Capitalism
4.1.2 The independence of the results of human action
4.2 Differences
4.2.1 Idealism versus materialism?
4.2.2 On the question of immanent developmental logics of history

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Max Weber and Karl Marx developed two major competing theories about social change, which still play an important role in sociology today. In both of them, the scientific investigation of modern capitalism is at the center of their works. My work deals primarily with their explanatory approaches to the genesis of capitalism and not with their explanatory approaches to its functioning. It is therefore about the historical and causative forces with which Weber and Marx each try to explain the emergence of modern capitalism in different ways.

Marx's thoughts on the emergence of capitalism are most detailed in Capital, the first volume of which was published in 1867. Weber's view on the genesis of capitalism crystallized in 1904, when he first published "The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism" (Birnbaum 1973: p. 38f). Weber's work was thus written about half a century later and is based, at least in part, on the polemical examination of Marx.

In chapters 2 and 3, I first present the two explanatory models separately. I deal in much more detail and precisely with Weber's model, an equally detailed presentation of Marx's model would have gone beyond the scope of this work. In Chapter 4, I compare the two explanatory models by working out the main similarities and differences. In part, this comparison extends beyond the actual genesis of modern capitalism and concerns fundamental views of Marx and Weber. In chapter 5 I then draw a final conclusion of my work.

2 The Model of Max Weber

Weber asks himself how the emergence of occidental, Western capitalism was possible. Weber does not ask how capitalism, once it has prevailed, works (Schluchter 1996: p. 19). For Weber, the "emergence" of capitalism is "what is actually to be explained" (Weber 1963: p. 37). Weber thus distinguishes between the historical emergence of capitalism and the capitalist economic order as a finished system, which for him presents itself as "a more immense cosmos into which the individual is born and which for him... as a de facto unchangeable housing in which he has to live" (Weber 1963: p. 37).

In section 2.1 I first explain what Weber understands by the concept of capitalism, and then in section 2.2 I deal with the most important condition factors of the emergence of capitalism. 2.2.1 deals with the "material" or institutional conditions that Weber has mainly presented in his "economic history". 2.2.2 deals with ascetic Protestantism as an "ideal" condition factor, which Weber has worked out above all in the text "The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism". In section 2.3 I address the concept of paradox, which occupies a key position in Weber's thinking (Guttandin 1998: p. 182).

2.1 Weber's concept of capitalism

Before I come to the next section to talk about the conditions that, according to Weber, made the emergence of modern Occidental capitalism possible, I will first briefly go into what Weber understands by capitalism, so to speak, in an ideal way.

Weber distinguishes in the "preliminary remark"1 zu den Gesammelten Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie zwischen den älteren Formen kapitalistischen Wirtschaftens einerseits und dem okzidentalen modernen Kapitalismus andererseits. Compared to the older forms of capitalist economy, the latter is characterized by some important additional characteristics. First, however, the older forms of capitalist economy or the general characteristics of capitalist economy:

2.1.1 Older Forms of Capitalism

Weber defines first of all what he generally understands by a capitalist economic act: "A 'capitalist' economic act should first of all be called such, which is based on the expectation of profit by exploiting exchange chances exist: on (formally) Peaceful Erwerbschancen also" (Weber 1963: p. 4). A capitalist economic act is therefore basically based on the "expectation of profit". But not every "profit-making drive", not every striving for the highest possible profit is already a capitalist economic act. one exchange And the volunteer Consent of the respective exchange partners is the prerequisite for a capitalist economic act. The violent appropriation of goods through robbery, theft and road-laying are thus just as little to be regarded as capitalist economic acts as begging, gambling dens, etc. (Weber 1963: p. 4).2 In addition, Weber makes it clear: Unrestricted greed for work is not in the least to be equated with capitalism. Capitalism can even, on the contrary, be "virtually identical with taming, at least with rational tempering, of this irrational drive." Weber then goes on to say: "However, capitalism is identical with the pursuit of profit in continuous, rational capitalist operation: after always re-to-use Profit, after ́ profitability '" (Weber 1963: p. 4). If capitalist acquisition is characterized by the rational pursuit of profitability, any kind of capitalist acquisition is inevitably bound by its predictability. The corresponding action must therefore be linked to some kind of 'capital' invoice in Geld" (Weber 1963: p. 5). Whether the nature of the capital account is more primitive or more in a modern form is not essential, since this concerns only the degree of rationality of capitalist acquisition. Weber is concerned "that the Actual Orientation to a comparison of the monetary estimation success with the use of money estimation decisively determines economic activity" (Weber 1963: p. 6). In addition to the pursuit of profitability, Weber mentions as a further criterion of capitalist acquisition that is managed in a "continuous" enterprise (Guttandin 1989: p. 20f).

Capitalist economic action in the sense of the above definition is ancient according to Weber and has existed in all cultural countries of the world. Weber cites various examples of this: "In China, India, Babylon, Egypt, medieval antiquity, the Middle Ages as well as in modern times. ... In any case: the capitalist enterprise and also the capitalist entrepreneur, not only as a casual, but also as a permanent entrepreneur, are ancient and were highly universally widespread" (Weber 1963: p. 6).3

2.1.2 Modern Occidental Capitalism

Weber then raises the question of what constitutes the special feature of modern Occidential capitalism in contrast to those ancient and universal manifestations of capitalism. For Weber, modern modern capitalism of the Occident is based – in contrast to its preforms – on the rationality of the acquisition action realized in it (Guttandin 1998: p. 23). He mentions three essential characteristic features, on the basis of which "a completely different kind of capitalism developed nowhere else on earth" (Weber 1963: p.7) has developed:

1. The rational-capitalist (operational) organization of (formally) free labor:

Capitalist-rationally organized enterprises with free wage workers existed elsewhere, according to Weber, only in preliminary stages.4 A rational business organization oriented to the opportunities of the goods market and not to violent political or irrational speculative opportunities represents a special feature that can only be found in modern occidental capitalism (Weber 1963: p. 7f).

2. The separation of household and business:

Only the separation of household and business and the associated legal separation of business assets and private assets makes it possible to establish corporations in which several partners can participate (Guttandin 1998: p. 22).5

3. Rational accounting:

The development of rational accounting is closely linked to the separation of business and private assets. Only this makes it possible to calculate the profit to be paid to the various shareholders of corporations on the basis of the respective capital investment (Weber 1963: p. 8; Guttandin 1998: p. 22).

The "rational-capitalist organization of (formally) free labor" and the "rational accounting" are thus among the basic conditions of modern occidental capitalism, along with the separation of business and private assets.

The rational development of other areas, namely that of scientifically founded technology, law and administration on the one hand and the development of a rational-practical way of life or a modern economic ethos on the other, has significantly contributed to the emergence of modern modern capitalism (Weber: 1963: p. 10ff; Guttandin 1998: p. 23ff). In a way, the rational development of these areas could be counted among the characteristics of modern occidental capitalism. In my opinion, however, it makes more sense to deal with the rational development of these areas under 2.3 (conditions of the emergence of capitalism).

2.2 Conditions of the emergence of capitalism

"The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism" (hereinafter briefly: "Protestant Ethics") is one of the best-known works of Max Weber and probably also of sociology in general (Weber 1963). In this text Weber deals with a fundamental connection between the existence of a certain religious ethic, namely the ethics of ascetic Protestantism, and the development of a "capitalist spirit". This in turn forms one decisive prerequisite for the emergence of modern, Western capitalism. Before I will trace this line of argument of Weber's Protestant ethics in more detail in section 2.2.2, I refer in section 2.2.1 first mainly to Weber's text "The Unfolding of capitalist attitudes" in "Economic History"6 (Weber 1958: pp. 300 – 315), which arose much later than Protestant ethics.7 In contrast to Protestant ethics, Weber focuses here on the material or institutional factors that represent the conditions for the development of modern occidental capitalism (Schluchter 1996: p. 188). Weber makes it clear in his "Preliminary Remark" to the Collected Essays on the Sociology of Religion that in Protestant ethics he "only pursued one side of the causal relationship" (Weber 1963: p. 12). The material or institutional factors presented in "economic history" constitute the other side of the causal relationship. They play a decisive role in Weber's model of the emergence of capitalism and are therefore presented here first.

2.2.1 Material or institutional condition factors

In the text "The Unfolding of the Capitalist Attitude", Weber tries to answer the question of why modern capitalism was able to develop and unfold in the Occident and not in earlier advanced civilizations. Weber first mentions some conditions that have generally contributed to the emergence of modern capitalism in the Occident. In order to be able to evoke modern capitalism, however, these were ultimately not sufficient. (Weber 1958: p. 300ff). In this context, Weber mentions the following favourable (but not sufficient) factors:

a) The increase in population in Europe has contributed to the emergence of capitalism insofar as it has provided the necessary manpower. But as such, it has not been able to provoke capitalism either. Thus, the population in China developed from the beginning of the 18th to the end of the 19th century as quickly as at the same time in the Occident. Despite this generally favourable condition, capitalism in China has developed not forwards but backwards. Weber attributes this to the fact that the population increase in China is increasing in other strata.8 had been carried out as in the Occident (Weber 1958: p. 300).
b) According to Weber, the inflow of precious metals also favoured capitalism by placing large stocks of cash in The European Community in the 16th century in the hands of certain sections of the population and thus accelerating the economic cycle.9 Weber cites empirical-historical examples that make it clear that even an increased inflow of precious metals alone is not sufficient to advance modern capitalist development (Weber 1958:301).10.
(c) Europe's geographical position, with its internal character and the wealth of electricity links, favoured the emergence of modern capitalism through good transport facilities. But even these conditions have ensconsisted elsewhere, without capitalism having arisen there (Weber 1958: p. 302).

As further essential condition factors are given by Weber in the "preliminary remark"11: the development of science-based technology, law and administration (Guttandin 1998: p. 23). Only the rational development of scientifically sound technology made it possible for the technically decisive factors to become calculable and to be put at the service of capitalist interests.12 (Weber 1963: p. 10). And it was only the rational development of law and administration that made it possible for them to be calculated according to formal rules. Without this predictability, adventure and speculative merchant capitalism and all sorts of politically conditioned capitalism were possible, but not rationally managed private-sector enterprises with standing capital and secure calculations (Weber 1963: p. 11).

According to Weber, the factors listed represent essential prerequisites that, although the emergence of the capitalist form have made possible, but not the capitalist spirit, which helped modern Occidental capitalism to break through. Schluchter (1996: p. 190) speaks in this context of an "institutional transformation" of the 11th – 13th centuries, from which the capitalist form finally emerges (Weber 1963: p. 49ff).

2.2.2 Ascetic Protestantism and the "Capitalist Spirit"

As already shown above in section 2.1.2, modern Occidental capitalism is characterized by rationality. He has succeeded in making himself compatible and interlinking with the predetermined rationality structures of law, administration and scientifically sound technology. However, this required human dispositions and abilities that, due to their practical-rational lifestyle, were able to play in rational structures. These abilities and dispositions also had to be strong enough to prevail against a hostile environment (Guttandin 1998: p. 27). In the past, "the magical and religious powers and the ethical concepts of duty anchored in their belief" were among the most important forming elements of lifestyle (Weber 1963: p. 12). The development of an economically rational way of life was inhibited by this traditionally determined way of life and had to prevail first against severe inner resistance of the people. Therefore, the actual breakthrough to capitalist development only succeeded – according to Weber's thesis – when in the Occident, and only here, the rational attitude, the rationalization of lifestyle and the rational economic ethos began to prevail (Weber 1958: p. 302). According to Weber, this newly developing "spirit of capitalism" is not the result of a revolution from the outside, but from the inside, a "revolution of opinion" (Schluchter 1996: p. 190). According to Weber, it is ultimately the historical achievement of ascetic Protestantism to have brought about this revolution of opinion. In Protestant Ethics, Weber describes how the spirit of capitalism developed out of the ascetic branch of Protestantism, in order to then finally help modern Occidental capitalism to break through against all the resistance of economic traditionalism. In the following, I will present Weber's argument in its main features.

The starting point of the investigation of the "Protestant ethics" are initially empirical observations that Protestants in the occupational statistics of the time both among the capital owners and entrepreneurs as well as among the upper strata of the workforce in denominationally mixed areas13 were significantly overrepresented. (Weber 1960: p. 17f). In addition, Weber refers to other studies that prove, among other things, that Protestants still at the end of the 19th century represented a disproportionately high proportion of pupils and high school graduates of higher educational institutions (Weber 1963: p. 21) and were also significantly overrepresented in the working class of modern large-scale industry (Weber 1963: p. 22). What is still striking for Weber is the fact that the most economically developed areas had joined Protestantism since the 16th century (Weber 1963: p. 19). Weber asks himself what reason there might have been for this particularly strong predisposition of the most economically developed areas for an ecclesiastical revolution. Weber questions the initially obvious consideration of the liberalist tradition of historiography (Kuchenbrod), that the "stripping of economic traditionalism" in the economically most developed areas has also led to doubts about the religious tradition and to the rebellion against the traditional authorities: The Reformation is not about a removal of ecclesiastical rule gone, but around the substitution of the previous form by another. And that is about "the replacement of a highly comfortable, practically then hardly tangible, often almost only formal rule by a...penetrating into all spheres of domestic life, infinitely annoying and serious regulation of the whole way of life" (Weber 1963: p. 20). The starting point of the Reformation was not too much, but too little of ecclesiastical-religious domination. In the further course of his argumentation, Weber elaborates on similarities between certain attitudes of Protestantism and capitalist attitudes. The causality relationship is thus at least tended to be reversed for Weber: It is not economic progress that leads to rebellion against religious rule, but revolutionary religious rule that leads to economic progress. The significance of three elements of the Reformation is repeatedly worked out by Weber in his study:

1. the Calvinist belief in predestination
2. the Protestant concept of the profession
3. the cult character of reformed religious organizations

Taken together, these elements can only be found in the currents of the Reformation, which Weber summarizes under the concept of ascetic Protestantism. Anglo-American Puritanism, continental European Calvinism, and the various Protestant sects such as Quakers, Mennonites, and German Pietism represent these ascetic currents of the Reformation and are primarily distinguished by Weber from more moderate Lutheranism (Kuchenbrod; Weber 1963: p. 24ff).


1 Weber wrote this text shortly before his death. It forms, so to speak, the basis for the overall interpretation of Weber's work.

2 this According to Weber, striving for profit can be found "in 'all sorts and conditions of men', in all epochs of all countries of the world, where the objective possibility for this was and is somehow given" (Weber 1963: p. 4). But this is not capitalism.

3 Since Weber also describes the casual entrepreneur as a capitalist entrepreneur, he somewhat softens the aforementioned criterion of the continuity of the company.

4 Plantations, fron farms, estate factories, etc. were run with a certain rationality, but serfs and bonded people were employed in them. Conversely, the everywhere found evidence of the use of day laborers did not take place in rationally capitalist organized enterprises such as manufactories or other larger production facilities (Weber 1963: p. 7; Guttandin 1998: p. 22).

5 According to Weber, beginnings of capitalist associations with separate operating accounts already existed in East Asia, the Orient and antiquity. Compared to the modern independence of the commercial enterprises, these are in fact only beginnings (Weber 1963: p. 8).

6 The "Economic History" is not an original text by Weber, but a lecture in the winter semester 1919/20 that was not prepared in writing, which was subsequently compiled on the basis of the copies of listeners and other texts by Weber (Schluchter 1996: p. 189).

7 The question of whether Weber in "economic history" changed his original thesis in "Protestant ethics" so fundamentally that it is no longer compatible with her original content, I will not pursue here any further. Schluchter (1996: p. 191ff) tries to prove on the basis of work-historical, methodological and historical considerations that the theory elaborated in economic history is identical to that original thesis. For Schluchter, moreover, economic history is a rather secondary text compared to "Economy and Society" and the "Collected Essays on the Sociology of Religion" (Schluchter 1996: p. 189).

8 China had "through them [the population increase] become a country with a bustle of small farmers" (Weber 1958: p. 300).

9 I have added the last half-sentence in spirit.

10 Weber makes this clear in India during the time of the Roman Empire and in Spain after the discovery of America. Large inflows of precious metals had been recorded in both countries, but for various reasons this had not driven the development of modern capitalism (Weber 1958: p. 300).

11 In "economic history", other binding factors are dealt with only very briefly: "What ultimately created capitalism according to Weber is the rational permanent enterprise, the rational accounting, the technology and the rational law" (Weber 1958: p. 302). Therefore, I refer at this point to the "preliminary remark" in the Collected Essays on the Sociology of Religion (Weber 1963).

12 Even before the development of modern capitalism, mathematics and mechanics existed among Indians, Greeks and Romans. However, these were not put at the service of capitalist interests (Weber 1963: p. 10; Guttandin 1998: p. 24).

13 Weber himself speaks of the professional statistics of a denominationally mixed country and thus refers to the countries of the German Reich.

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The Origin of Modern Capitalism. A Comparison of Max Weber and Karl Marx
Bielefeld University  (Fakultät für Soziologie)
Max Webers Theorie des Okzidentalen Rationalismus
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Modern Capitalism, Max Weber, Karl Marx, capitalism, sociology
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Joachim Schmidt (Author), 2003, The Origin of Modern Capitalism. A Comparison of Max Weber and Karl Marx, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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