Max Weber Was a Class-Conscious Champion of the Bourgeoisie

During the Cold War, US sociologists lionized Max Weber as a superior alternative to Karl Marx. For all his brilliance, Weber’s social theory glosses over the violent, exploitative nature of capitalism and serves as a pessimistic defense of the status quo.

Sociologist Max Weber, photographed in 1918. (Wikimedia Commons)

Almost every student who studies sociology has heard of Max Weber. Few, however, are aware of how he came to occupy such a preeminent place in its canon.

After all, Weber’s influence was minimal in the immediate decades after his death. Between 1922 and 1947, his key book, Economy and Society, sold just two thousand copies in his native Germany.

Weber’s subsequent rise to a position of extraordinary importance did not merely stem from a belated recognition of his intellectual virtues. Opponents of Marxism in the social sciences seized upon Weber as an alternative to Marx in explaining how societies function and change.

In doing so, they downplayed the partisan political views that shaped Weber’s thinking and the shortcomings of his social theory.

Cold War Sociology

Weber owes his current reputation primarily to Talcott Parsons, the leading theoretician of US sociology during the Cold War. Parsons saw the German thinker as having been engaged in a fight “against the positivist tendencies of Marxian historical materialism” by emphasizing the role of values.

In 1939, Parsons received a letter from the Austrian neoliberal ideologue Friedrich von Hayek, who urged him to revise a translation of Economy and Society. Hayek regarded Weber as an important ideological forerunner of his because his methodological individualism drew on the Austrian school of economics.

As Weber had written:

If I have become a sociologist . . . it is mainly to exorcise the specter of collective conceptions which still lingers among us. . . . Sociology can only proceed from the action of one or more separate individuals and must therefore adopt strictly individualistic methods.

After the intervention by Parsons, US academics “Americanized” Weber to make him appear as a value-free sociologist. Editors eliminated earlier references in Economy and Society to “the flotsam of African and Asiatic savages” from the armies of Germany’s enemies during World War I. They selected texts that formed the core of Weber’s contribution to sociology.

Crucially, Weber was awarded the prize for sophistication in his debate with Marx. According to this perspective, Weber had rejected Marx’s supposedly crude, two-class model of modern society in favor of a multiclass model. As an alternative to Marx’s economic determinism, he had put forward a multifactor understanding of causation. And instead of offering naive hopes of a better world, he had warned against the danger of bureaucratization.

This assessment of Weber’s contribution was not just confined to the Right. New Left critics like C. Wright Mills, whose book The Power Elite pointed to the interlinking of military, corporate, and political elites in US society, also saw Weber as the originator of key insights into stratification and domination.

Depoliticizing Weber

One way this sociological consensus was achieved was through the construction of Weber as an apolitical figure. Universities taught his theories in an abstract fashion, referring to “Society” in general rather than specific formations.

Writers like Wolfgang Mommsen later situated Weber’s political and social theories in the context of early twentieth-century Germany, but the dominant approach to Weber deemed this context to be irrelevant to the timeless insights that he had produced. However, such a separation is not possible in reality, because Weber’s right-wing nationalism permeates his sociological theories.

“A class-conscious bourgeois” was how Weber once described himself. As a young man, he joined the Evangelical Social Congress and the Pan German League, described by one writer, Michael Stürmer, as “the voice of Germany’s most vicious nationalism.” He was an imperialist who advocated colonization, claiming that

we need more room externally . . . the broad masses of our people should become aware that the expansion of Germany’s power is the only thing which can ensure for them a permanent livelihood.

In his first main study, which looked at the situation of agricultural laborers in eastern Germany, Weber attacked Polish migrant workers, denouncing “the Slavic invasion which would mean a cultural regression of major proportions.”

Nor were these sentiments merely an expression of youthful zeal. Weber was an ardent supporter of Germany’s war effort in 1914, claiming that “the honor of our people bade us not to shrink this duty in a cowardly and slothful fashion.” At the end of his life, he advocated a form of plebiscitary democracy which would be so limited that Georg Lukács described it as no more than “a technical means to achieve a better functioning imperialism.” He also launched vicious attacks on the radical left after the war, claiming that “[Karl] Liebknecht belongs in the madhouse and Rosa Luxemburg in the zoo.”

Bourgeois Ideals

Weber’s wider political project faced two obstacles. One was the influence of the Marxist Social Democratic Party (SPD) inside the German working class. Attempts by conservatives like Otto von Bismarck to destroy it with repressive anti-socialist laws had failed, and Weber embarked on an ideological polemic instead. This polemic was an implicit rather than an explicit one: Weber rarely mentioned Marx or the SPD, but his aim was to create an alternative intellectual standpoint to theirs.

The second obstacle that Weber faced was the political immaturity of the class that he championed. Bismarck and the Junker aristocratic class had united Germany, not the bourgeois liberals who had put forward that goal in 1848. In Weber’s view, Bismarck and his class smothered the bourgeoisie with a state bureaucracy that hemmed in opportunities for expansion and imperialism. He wanted the bourgeoisie to “free itself from its unnatural association” with the Junkers and “return to the self-conscious cultivation of its own ideals.”

Weber’s most famous book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, blends together these two concerns. It provides an account of the rise of capitalism that gives the bourgeoise a sense of its historic mission and a positively charged moral strength. It also offers a method of interpreting history that counteracts Marx’s historical materialism and is designed to show how “ideas become effective forces in history.”

The central thesis of The Protestant Ethic is well known. According to Weber, the Reformation — in particular Martin Luther’s concept of a “calling” and John Calvin’s notion of “predestination” — produced a cultural change, giving rise to a society that no longer regarded moneymaking as dirty and sinful. A new moral imperative led to a “worldly asceticism,” which encouraged the accumulation of capital through a strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life.

There is no doubt that Weber produced some valuable insights into how the Protestant religion functioned as an ideology that facilitated the emergence of capitalism. However, the book also contained a series of questionable assumptions that romanticized the transition to capitalism in Europe.

Capitalism and Religion

First of all, there is Weber’s definition of capitalism as an economic system based on “renewed profit by means of continuous rational . . . enterprise,” which rested on “the expectation of profit by the utilization of opportunities for exchange, that is on (formally) peaceful chances of profit.”  Yet as one modern-day exponent of the system, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, explained during the heyday of neoliberal globalization: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist — McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15.”

In other words, actually existing capitalism, then and now, does not function purely through market “rationality” but requires the armed power of the state to intimidate and colonize. Weber wanted to spiritualize the origins of the system so that the early capitalist appeared in the guise of a dour anti-hero driven by a moral duty that their religious convictions imposed. This framework simply airbrushed the brutality associated with the original accumulation of capital in terms of slavery or the theft of common land out of history.

Secondly, Weber can offer no explanation for the reception that Luther and Calvin received. Previous heretical movements such as the Hussites in Bohemia had offered similar ideas to those of Luther but found themselves crushed. Exploring the question of why Luther succeeded while the Hussites failed would have involved a discussion of the crisis provoked by “market feudalism.” Even prior to the Reformation, there was a wealthier class who demanded the right to hire rural labor, dispense with the tradition of “customary price,” and break free of guild restrictions.

Finally, Weber’s desire to show psychological effects that led directly from the theology of Protestantism to the “spirit of capitalism” forced him to standardize that theology around particular doctrines. In practice, however, the Protestant reformation was tremendously diverse.

As the Marxist historian Christopher Hill explained, this school of thought tended to object to forms of mechanical action that did not involve the heart. It emphasized a morality that individuals imposed upon themselves rather than one coming from obedience to priests. As a result, Protestantism did not automatically lead to capitalism. The importance of the Reformation lay in how it undermined the obstacles to capitalist development that the rigid institutions and ceremonies of Catholicism imposed.

The weakness of Weber’s focus on religion to account for historical change stands out most clearly in two books that rarely make it on to the sociological canon. He wrote The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism and The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism during his mature period in the midst of World War I. As well as identifying Hinduism and Confucianism as the key determinants that prevented the rise of capitalism in India and China, the two books are replete with condescending racism.

Weber builds on a previous notion expressed in The Protestant Ethic, according to which Asian culture lacked rationality compared to the West, but he now adds some outrageous stereotypes to the mix. He condemns the “unrestricted lust for gain of the Asiatics” and bizarrely claims that the Chinese people had an “absolute insensitivity to monotony.” He even claims that the Chinese language and script deprived its people “of the power of logos, of defining and reasoning.”

Weber’s neglect of material factors is the most evident lacuna in his analysis. There is little discussion of how colonialism in the shape of the East India Company or the Opium Wars waged by Britain for its right to impose drug trafficking on the people of China hindered the development of capitalism in these countries.

Iron Cages

Weber issued some famous warnings about the “iron cage of bureaucracy” that developed in modern societies. Despite what is often claimed, it is untrue that the concept never featured in Marx’s writings. In his Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State (1843), he attacked the state bureaucracy for its claim to be a universal class that stood over the conflicting interests of civil society. According to Marx, its hierarchy was “the hierarchy of knowledge.”

Weber did produce some real insights into the formal structure of bureaucracies. He also dispensed with the myth that bureaucratic “red tape” was inefficient and only emerged in public institutions, noting that “very large modern capitalist enterprises are themselves unequaled models of bureaucratic organization.”

The focus on bureaucracy formed part of Weber’s more pessimistic defense of the social status quo. The dialectic underpinning his model of history is an oscillating pattern between bureaucracy and charisma. A great leader emerges to break free of the iron cage, but his successors are tragically fated to experience a routinization of that charisma.

There is a poorly concealed strain of elitism throughout this view of history. For Weber, the broad masses will always be ruled by a small number of people who dominate a bureaucratic apparatus. In Parliament and Government in Germany, he makes a distinction between those who live from politics and those who live for politics.

The former blend in easily with the full-time bureaucracies of political parties. Only the latter figure can escape the constraints of bureaucracy to become “a politician of great stature,” because “it is easier for him, the more he has a fortune which gives him independence and makes him ‘available,’ not tied to a business (as entrepreneurs are) but a person with an unearned income.”

The US sociologist Alvin Gouldner attacked Weber’s theory as a suprahistorical “metaphysical pathos.” According to Gouldner, Weber had ignored many of the dysfunctions of bureaucracies in his ruler-centric vision, such as their tendency to split into competing empires, their culture of ultraconformism, and their stress on formal outward appearances.

In his own analysis of bureaucracy, the Belgian Marxist Ernest Mandel pointed out that the majority of people would hardly abstain from meetings and allow bureaucracies to dominate if they actually had the power to decide on the issues that shaped their lives. Apathy and acceptance of bureaucracy arise from a sense of powerlessness that is a necessary part of capitalist societies.

If that feeling of powerlessness was absolute, no revolts would be possible. Fortunately, however, history is full of examples of revolutions against states that commanded the highest levels of bureaucratic organization.

Stratification and Struggle

Almost every sociology course contains a module on stratification. The term is derived directly from Weber’s somewhat fragmentary writing on class, status, and party. To his credit, Weber recognized the reality of class conflict, in contrast to the functionalist school that dominated Cold War US sociology.

However, his concept of social class is simply one based on shared life chances. There is no reference to the sphere of production and crucially, the relationship between social classes is not one of exploitation. Weber’s multiclass model becomes a convenient way to separate off the rentier from the manufacturing capitalist, with the former receiving “unearned gains” while the latter does not.

There are, of course, different fractions within the capitalist class, but these divisions are much less absolute than Weber imagined them to be. His concern was to create a “national economic policy” that would guard against “the disarmament of its own nation by fanatical interest groups or the unworthy apostles of economic peace.” Hence the separation of usurious finance from healthy manufacturing.

Weber’s greatest contemporary influence probably comes through his concept of status, which is defined as a measure of prestige and honor. Many writers use this concept to claim that there is a fundamental division between white-collar and blue-collar employees. According to this argument, white-collar employees tend to focus on erecting barriers to exclude those below them from entering their profession. As this segment of the workforce grows, the working class as the agent of change supposedly disappears.

However, we should note that the social distinction between office and manual workers was much greater in Weber’s time than it is today. Moreover, Weber’s concept of status slips uneasily between precapitalist and modern periods. By using the German term Stand, which can be translated by the English words “estate” or “status,” Weber ossified this division between different categories of workers.

The reality today is that white-collar employees are subject to much greater monitoring at work than in the past. They are the target of productivity-enhancing measures such as key performance indicators and their work contracts are often precarious. Moreover, they are frequently more heavily unionized than in earlier periods.

In other words, as Harry Braverman pointed out in his work Labor and Monopoly Capital, they have been proletarianized. By neglecting the role of exploitation in class relations, Weberian sociology misses this important dynamic.

The criticisms made above are not an argument for removing Weber from the sociological cannon. It is important to understand how capitalist ideology is constructed. By studying Weber in his real political context, we can learn a lot about that process of construction.