Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, offers a sociological interpretation of history to explain the rise of Western capitalism. He traces these roots to the foundation of the Protestant branches of Christianity and the unique mores that the followers of this faith lived by in earlier times. His historical interpretation, and general critique of capitalism, is at odds with the views taken by economic philosopher Karl Marx.
Weber’s history begins with the reformer Martin Luther and his split from the Roman Catholic Church. Luther took issue with ninety-five tenets of the Catholic faith, one of those being how a believer is to enter Heaven. While the Catholics stressed doing good works to gain access to Heaven, Luther believed that the key to salvation was found in the doctrine of sola fide — grace by faith alone. God would decide who was to enter Heaven based upon their faith rather than by their deeds. Lutheranism and all other Protestant sects identified with a variation on this belief.
Calvinism is a Protestant branch of Christianity that denies that man has free will and that our lives have been predestined by God, even prior to our being born. While faith in God is crucial to enter Heaven, our path has already been decided without our consent. Even our choice to have faith has been decided, making it no real choice at all. This branch is where Weber placed the strength of early capitalism, because this is also where we find the strongest faith in an all-knowing God.
The Calvinists (and Protestants in general) put their spiritual efforts into their labor, thinking that if their work was prosperous this was a sign that God had blessed them and their admittance into Heaven was a more likely outcome. While there was still no guarantee of Heaven, this potential sign offered ease of mind for many hoping for eternal life. Working hard thus became a crucial component of spiritual life.
With hard work often comes increased profits and income. However, what Weber termed the “Protestant ethic” did not leave the Protestants many options with regard to how to use this new found monetary gain. Martin Luther had accused the Catholic Church of using tithe money to buy people’s way into Heaven and also to buy statues and other frivolous things that could be seen as graven images (a direct affront to the Ten Commandments). Therefore, Protestants were not in favor of donating any more money to the Church than was required. Also, spending the money on themselves beyond their needs would be luxury purchases, another inappropriate practice. And finally, giving the money to the poor was looked down upon because many believed this would put the poor in a position to keep expecting handouts. The only alternative was to save and invest the money, which paid off much later for the budding capitalists — these early Protestants’ grandchildren — when they felt less restricted by their religion.
Marx takes a wholly different approach on both the rise of capitalism and the relationship this system has with religion. While Weber is working with a very specific linear history (the rise of Protestantism) to explain capitalism in the West, Marx offers much broader strokes. His view, also historical, relies heavily on a modified interpretation of Hegel’s dialectical materialism. For Marx, capitalism became dominant as a response to the flaws of feudalism, not so much because of the religious practices of a particular group. Marx, likewise felt that the flaws of capitalism would lead to the emergence of communism (which is a prediction that is failing to be proved). A Marxian view of history focuses much more on conflict and resolution rather than the belief structures of various peoples.
Both Weber and Marx believe religion, and Christianity in particular, aided the rise of capitalism. They are, however, looking at this connection from two entirely different angles. Weber offers a positive (by which I mean “assertive”, not necessarily “good”) view of religion’s effects on capitalism, whereas Marx offers a more negative approach. For Weber, capitalism is aided by religion because Protestant ethics offer a driving force behind working harder, investing more money and trying to get ahead. With Marx, who famously called religion an opiate for the masses, religion assists capitalism not by pushing people to work harder, but by keeping people pacified in the face of their capitalist employers. One could argue that Weber is more focused on religion’s effect on the owners (compelling them upward) whereas Marx is concerned with the employees (pushing them downward).
Weber and Marx both agree and disagree with regards to the future of capitalism and religion’s role in that future. Marx saw the fall of capitalism (and the rise of communism) as something inevitable, while Weber thought capitalism was an economic system that could continue on indefinitely. Weber was willing to concede that if religion lost its place as a driving force in society that people would begin to be more vociferous about their positions in life and their general discontent. This supports Marx’s comment on religion as an opiate, and if we are to believe that religion’s power is declining, Weber (if he were alive today) might be more inclined to accept Marx’s critiques of capitalism.
What makes Weber’s system so good, both compared to Marx and in general, is his use of specifics. For his theory to be sound, he knows he will have to have a lot of factual support for his claims and he makes every effort to provide this. Marx is more of a rhetorician and less of a scientist, leaving his theories to be debatable but hardly grounded in anything concrete. Whether Weber is correct or not, his methods make him a force to be reckoned with in the field of sociology.
This can be a double-edged sword, though, as one has to ask: is his account historically accurate? Yes, Luther did lead the revolt against the Catholic Church and Weber’s outline of Protestant beliefs is true. But did capitalism form out of these contingencies, or did they just happen to be going on at the same time such a rise was occurring in modern thought? Here is where specifics can backfire because the devil is in the details — one or two errors and the whole system comes into question (whereas Marx leaves plenty of “wiggle room”),
I think Weber failed to account for non-Protestant systems. Capitalism exists worldwide, even in countries that are not Protestant or even Christian (such as Japan). One could defend Weber by saying he was concerned with “western capitalism”, but this again begs the question: if capitalism formed in other places, is it even Protestantism at all that is to account for such a rise? On this note Marx again seems stronger, because his more general approach is somewhat more universal and less cultural.
Weber also doesn’t account for why religion isn’t the force today behind capitalism. Clearly this was not his aim, but I am still left wondering: if capitalism is self-propelling now without Protestantism as its impetus, was Protestantism ever needed to to fuel the rise in the first place? Could it be possible the motivations of capitalists and employees today existed both today and yesterday?
Overall, I don’t mean to give Weber such a hard time. His theories are well-supported and very powerful in their reasoning. Surely, we wouldn’t be discussing them today if they were not considered plausible by a great many people specializing in sociology. Religion, business and government have a strong connection with one another as much as some of us might wish to pull them apart. Weber’s attempts to explain how two of these three interact are laudable, and worth discussion. The next step remains, however — how are we to take his ideas and use them in society today and in the future?