Karl Marx and Max Weber both have strong sociological perspectives on the concept of class in capitalist society. Each theorist uses their own method to make inferences about the social world, and because of this, they come to very divergent conclusions. Marx and Weber both argue that an individual’s class position is predictive of the stratification and type of conflict that arise between classes within society. However their main point of contention exists in their definitions of class and to what extent the capitalist mode of production is the determining factor of an individual’s class position. Marx uses his materialist conception of history to provide the framework for his concepts. This method is defined by looking at changes in material conditions over time to explain larger social and economic shifts. Conversely, Weber uses Versheten or “sympathetic understanding” to outline his concepts. This method is defined by looking at individual subjective motives for actions and to use those to extrapolate causes for larger economic events.
According to Marx, class structure and conflict are intrinsic to capitalist society as, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Marx, 1848, pg. 246). Using his materialist theory of history, he demonstrates that the nature of all societies is shaped by their modes of production. Marx (1859) writes, “The economic conditions of existence of the three great classes into which modern bourgeois society is divided are analyzed under [capital, landed property, and wage labor].” Marx defines capitalist society through its own unique mode of production: production for the sake of accumulating capital, which is reinvested in further production. This is how he is able to differentiate between feudalism - where agriculture was the basis of economy and the land was the means of production - and capitalism.
Different from Marx, Weber implicitly treats society as the product of a degree of free will, and not objective structures. He rejects Marx’s implication that concealed social structures are the underlying cause of events, and argues that individual motives are the true cause. When theorizing about cause of rise of capitalism, he argued that it was individuals’ religious beliefs that shaped their social actions to save money and work hard and eventually molded society into a capitalist system. (Weber, 1905).
Marx and Weber also differ on how an individual’s class position emerges and what factors define it. In capitalist society, an individual’s relationship and degree of control over the mode of production is what determines their class position. (Marx, 1967, pg 10) This position is also largely predetermined. In other words, an individual is born into a family with a historically determined class role, and there is little mobility between classes. According to Marx, two main classes exist in capitalist society: the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. The Bourgeoisie is “the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labor". (Marx, 1848, pg. 204). The Proletariat is “that class of modern wage laborers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labor power in order to live. (Marx, 1848, pg. 204) Weber disagrees with this and argues that the mode of distribution, rather than the mode of production, “monopolizes the opportunities for profitable deals for all those who, provided with goods, do not necessarily have to exchange them” (Weber, 927). He differentiates between those who have property and those who do not and uses those as “the basic categories for all class situations” (Weber, 927).
Marx argues that class conflict is inevitable in a capitalist society and “every form of society has been based…on the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes” (Marx, 1848, pg. 255). The relationship between the two classes is straightforward. The Proletariat and...
References: Marx, Karl. Friedrich, Engels. 1848. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Retrieved November 1,
Marx, K. 1867. Preface to the First German Edition. Das Kapital. Retrieved November 1, 2013.
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Weber, Max. 1922 “Class, Status and Party” in Economy and Society Retrieved on November 1,
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