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Essay: Theoretical Comparison of Karl Marx and Max Weber Term Paper

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Theoretical Comparison of Karl Marx and Max Weber Term Paper


Karl Marx, a German philosopher and sociologist was extremely influential intellectual thinker of his time. Marx through his use of a dialectical mode of thinking, offered many ideas to sociological thought that shaped much of the intellectual thinking of his time. Marx constructed ideas around sociology and the economy, and is best known for his work in The Communist Manifesto. (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 40). Max Weber, also a German philosopher and sociologist whom made significant contributions to sociological used rationality and causality at the basis of his theories. Marx and Weber shared many similarities, as well as differences in their work and together offered various explanations for society, the ways in which it worked, and what a future society could look like. In general, Marx placed a great focus on economic inequalities when explaining capitalism and argued that there would be a great proletariat revolution which would eventually lead to a communist society (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 58). In opposition to Marx, Weber found it crucial to analyze far more than the economy when considering social inequality and capitalism (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 116). Ritzer and Stepnisky (2017, p. 125) also illustrate Weber’s opposition to communism and said society would not see a revolution, but rather gradual change under authority. Although Marx and Weber had different ideas about future societies, they found common ground in their criticism of capitalistic society.  

Historical Context

Marx’s work was the result of various influences such as political, economic, social and intellectual forces he encountered during the historical period in which he lived. For instance, The Industrial Revolution sparked a considerable amount of interest amongst intellectual thinkers, specifically Marx, whose work was extremely influenced by the unstable society he witnessed develop because of the revolution. The industrial revolution took place in Western societies during the 19th and early 20th centuries; it was characterized as “transformation of the Western world from largely agricultural system to an overwhelmingly industrial one” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 8). Ritzer and Stepnisky (2017, p.8) explained how Marx concluded that the economy at this time consisted of an exchange of labour where few profited and majority of society worked for unfair wages. Influenced by both Hegel and Feuerbach, he laid the basis of his theoretical model; material dialecticism. Hegel explained the dialectic as a “way of thinking that stresses the importance of processes, relations, dynamics, conflicts, and contradictions…” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p.19) and idealism, which was concerned solely with mental products and the mind (p.19). Feuerbach focused on the analysis of the religious world (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p.21). Marx was not fully satisfied with what either theorist had to offer and “extracted what he considered to be the two most important elements from these two thinkers- Hegel’s dialectic and Feuerbach’s materialism- and fused them into his own distinctive orientation, dialectical materialism, which focuses on dialectical relationships within the material world” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 21).  Additionally, the Industrial Revolution influenced Marx in developing his theories of economy, focusing on capitalism, exploitation and alienation as a result of conflict between two opposing classes which he termed the bourgeoisie and the proletariats (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 21, 22).  For example, Marx’s theory of labour was influenced by his idea that “labour was the source of all wealth” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 21), which he said was the result of the Industrial Revolution. The oppressiveness of the capital system in which Marx witnessed at this time is what interested him to “develop a theory that explained this oppressiveness and that would help overthrow that system. Marx’s interest was in revolution, which stood in contrast to the conservative concern for reform and orderly change”. (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 22).

Theoretical Ideas

Marx made many contributions to sociological theory that are still studied in modern day. At the core of his theories lay his dialectical mode of thinking, which he used to explain much of his ideas about society and the way it manifested itself and changed over time. The dialectic model “implies that a social phenomenon will inevitably spawn an opposing form and that the clash between the two will inevitably lead to a new, synthetic social form” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 44). The two forces introduced in the dialectic mode of thinking, as a real material contradiction exists as the bourgeoisie, “the class of modern Capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage- labour” and the proletariat “the class of modern wage- labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour- power in order to live” (Marx and Engels, 1848/1978, p. 473). Marx identified that “society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat” (Marx and Engels, 1848/1978, p. 474).  Marx observed that the conflict existing within this two class system was largely because of economic inequality and wage labour.  The exchange of labour at this time consisted of a class of workers and their production, and a class that owned the means of production and appropriated the product (Marx and Engels, 1848/1978, p. 473). Work done by the proletariats was characterized as work that had “lost all individual character, and consequently all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine” (Marx and Engels, 1848/ 1978, p. 479). Moreover, Ritzer and Stepnisky (2017, p.45) stated that a contradiction also existed between the way labourers worked in capitalist society and their human potential. Marx explained that “the capitalists pay the workers less than the value that the workers produce and keep the rest for themselves” and therefore resulted in his concept of surplus value which was the discrepancy between the value of what the workers produced and what was appropriated by the capitalists. (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 57) This exchange intensifies the “conflict with the capitalists who own the factories and other means of production with which the work is done” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 42). Regarding wage labour, he argued that “the workers, in contradiction to the capitalists, want to keep at least some of the profit to themselves” and this was at the heart of conflict (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 42). Furthermore, “wage- labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers” and is therefore “the condition for capital is wage labour” (Marx and Engels, 1848/ 1978, pg. 483).  Marx was critical of wage labour as it paved the way for the exploitation of workers (Marx and Engels, 1848/ 1978, p. 485). Capitalism, as a result of wage labour resulted in exploitation of the workers. For example, Marx explained that workers were continuously exploited as they were forced into doing more mindless, repetitive work in shorter spans of time, yet their waged was simultaneously decreased (Marx and Engels, 1848, 1978, p. 479). The aspects of the work done by proletariats also produced what Marx termed alienation. Alienation describes the “breakdown of the natural interconnection among people and between people and what they produce” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 23). The alienation of the labourer was due to the fact that the work they were doing did not belong to their human nature, and thus was
considered forced labour to satisfy needs outside of their own (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 50).  Ritzer and Stepnisky (2017, p. 42) concluded that,

“As capitalism expands, the number of workers exploited, as well as the degree of exploitation increases. This contradiction can be resolved not through philosophy but only through social change. The tendency for the level of exploitation to escalate leads to more and more resistance by the workers. Resistance begets more exploitation and oppression, and the likely result is a confrontation between the two classes”.

The confrontation Marx predicted would happen between the two classes would likely result from what Marx described as the proletariats becoming “a true class, a class for itself” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, 58). The development of class consciousness would increase the number of proletariats and together they would grow stronger (Marx and Engels, 1848/ 1978, p. 480). This expanding of class would fuel their ability to start a revolution as together they would build contacts and form together to create a national conflict with the bourgeoisie (Marx and Engels, 1848/ 1978, p. 481).  The proletarians could not become masters of production without destroying “their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation” (Marx and Engels, 1848/ 1978, p. 482, 483). Marx and Engels (1848/ 1978, p. 483) argue that the proletarians have nothing to lose and in order to develop something new, like every society before their own, there must be a clash between the oppressed and oppressing classes. “Despite the importance to Marx of the future communist society, he spent surprisingly little time depicting what this world would be like” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017 p. 69). Although Marx did not say much, he was clear in expressing that “Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society” (Marx and Engels, 1848/ 1978, p. 483). Marx, optimistic of the future, believed that this proletarian revolution would result in the state controlling production and the appropriation of that production (Marx and Engels, 1848/ 1978, p. 490). He believed that communism would constitute this new society and that it “deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does it deprive him of the power to subjugate the labour of others by means of such appropriation” (Marx and Engels, 1848/ 1978, p. 486). Communism would allow the interests of most to be taken into account in social decision making, unlike a capitalistic system that only favoured the few (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 69).

Comparing Ideas

Karl Marx and Max Weber shared numerous similarities and differences in their sociological theories and analysis. Both Marx and Weber lived through the Industrial Revolution and witnessed the effect it had on the society in which they lived. As a result, the two theorists built their foundations of thought around similar issues such as inequalities faced by individuals. The theorists differed in their basis of sociological thought and core of which they developed their theories from. In opposition to Marx’s dialectic mode of thinking, Weber developed what he termed causality (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 116).  By causality, Weber “simply meant the probability that an event will be followed or accompanied by another event” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 116). In this view, Weber was concerned with not only the reasons for changes in society, but the meanings of these changes as well (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 116). Ritzer and Stepnisky (2017, p. 116) illustrate that unlike Marx, Weber was concerned with more than just the economy; he was interested in analyzing the interrelationships between the “economy, society, polity, organization, social stratification, religion, and so forth”. When considering social stratification, Marx and Weber also had opposing views. For example, Marx focused solely on class inequality whereas Weber noted that class, status and party were all important to analyze and that “he refused to reduce stratification to economic factors” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 124).  By class, Weber was describing people in the same class situation and similar economic production, status groups as ordinary communities with similar styles of life and parties as groups that are in competition for power and domination (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 125). Furthermore, Weber theorized that “people can rank high on one or two of these dimensions of stratification and low on the other (or others), permitting a far more sophisticated analysis of social stratification than is possible when stratification is simply reduced (as it was by some Marxists) to variations in one’s economic situation” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 124). Like Marx, Weber was also critical of modern capitalism but he did not encourage a revolution. Weber was rather pessimistic of future societies and had little hope in creating a better society and argued that if society shall change, it should happen gradually (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 125). Weber was in opposition to Marx’s communism, and said that a democracy was the best possibly option for future societies (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 126). In addition to rational- legal authorirty, “… the form that most interested Weber was bureaucracy, which he considered ‘the purest type of exercise of legal authority’” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 126).  Weber believed that within this type of authority, a bureaucracy is “capable of attaining the highest degree of efficiency, and is in the sense formally the most rational known of exercising authority over human beings. It is superior to any other form in precision, in stability, in the stringency of its discipline, and in its reliability” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 126).  He stated that if socialism were to come to be, that there would be an increase in bureaucratization. Weber was clear in expressing that bureaucracy became as efficient as capitalism, “‘it would mean a tremendous increase in the importance of professional bureaucrats’” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 128). His argument was that in capitalism, “professionals who stand outside the bureaucratic system can control it to some degree…Weber said that politicians ‘must be the countervailing force against bureaucratic domination’” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 128). In light of this, Weber believed that even with its shortcomings, and inequalities, “‘capitalism presented the best chances for the preservation for individual freedom and creative leadership in a bureaucrat world’” (Marx and Engels, 1848/ 1978, p. 128). He was confident that there was little hope for a better society and that the future “belongs to bureaucratization”. (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 127).  As previously suggested, unlike Marx who only analyzed economic factors of capitalism and inequality, Weber was interested in looking at other societal roles. He was unique in his analysis of the role religion played in capitalism. For example, Weber proposed that “capitalists could ruthlessly pursue their economic interests and feel that such pursuit was not merely self- interest but was, in fact, their ethical duty… ‘workmen who clung to their work as to a life purpose willed by God’. With such a workforce, the nascent capitalists could raise the level of exploitation to unprecedented heights” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 147).  

Evaluating Ideas

Marx’s theoretical ideas have facilitated many responses, outlining both strengths and weaknesses of his work. Ritzer and Stepnisky (2017, p. 69) states that there are numerous problem
s with Marx’s theory that must be discussed. Most notably, “the failure of communist societies and their turn to a more capitalistically oriented economy raise questions about the role of Marxian theory within sociology” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 69). Many countries have attempted to construct a Marxian society and after failing to do so, resulted in becoming “nothing but a bureaucratized form of capitalism” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 69). However, it can be argued that the states who attempted to form a Marxian society did not follow his theory accurately and therefore might be partially to blame for their failures (Ritzer & Stepinsky, 2017, p. 69). Next, Ritzer and Stepnisky (2017, p. 70) examine the “missing dimension of gender”. In this critique, he explains that “to a large degree, men’s paid labour still depends on the unpaid labour of women, especially the all- important rearing of the next generation of workers” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 70). In regard to this shortcoming, it is crucial to take into account that patriarchy “may be an essential foundation for the emergence of capitalism, but Marx simply ignored it” (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 70). Other flaws found in Marx’s work was the ‘missing emancipatory subject’, described as how the proletariats were seldom to take the position towards forming a communist society (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 69). Two additional critiques to Marx are his failure to address the role on consumption as he focused too heavily on production, and his “uncritical acceptance of Western conceptions of progress as a problem” Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 70). Although Marx’s work has its criticisms, he is still noted as a theorist who had a massive impact in sociology and research (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 70).  Theories such as “democracy and civil society, the media, transnational class system, global political trends, violence, financial and ecological crisis” are all examples that have been studied using Marxist theoretical ideas (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 70). To this day, Marxist theory continues to be of great use in studying critical social issues. In comparison to Weber, as previously stated Marx’s limited scope causes him to fall short when considering factors on societal inequality. Marx’s limitation to an economic evaluation of society offers far less than Weber, as Weber adequately addresses numerous interrelationships amongst society that can play a factor in social stratification.


It is evident that the work of both Karl Marx and Max Weber provide a substantial contribution to sociological theory and research. Although Marx and Weber offered different reasoning for how social structures of inequality were maintained, both developed theories that adequately explain their reasoning. Marx’s emphasis on the class inequality and the exploitation of workers resulted in his demand for a revolution (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 58), whereas Weber’s more in-depth analysis of various societal interrelations lead him to believe capitalism was not the answer, but neither was socialism; instead he viewed a democratic system as society’s best hope for the future (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017, p. 126). Furthermore, Marx and Weber are respected as two of the most influential figures in sociology.


Marx, K., & Engels, F. [1848] (1978).  Manifesto of the communist party.  In R.C. Tucker (Ed.), The Marx-Engels reader (2nd ed.) (pp. 469-500).  New York: W.W. Norton & Company

Ritzer, G. & Stepnisky, J. (2018). Classical Sociological Theory (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications (Custom Version for Sociology 2KK3).

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