Is Max Weber’s analysis of the rise of modern society a “debate with the ghost of Karl Marx”?

Intellectuals such as Karl Marx and Max Weber have proposed important theories toward understanding the dynamics of societies. Marx’s ideas in particular have profoundly affected later generations of sociologists, including his compatriot Max Weber. Marx’s achievement lies in attempting to explain social situations and problems from the point of view of economic class of constituent groups in society. Max Weber, who was a successor to the socio-economic analytic tradition established by Marx, made critical observations of many of Marx’s theories and consolidated the communist school of thought. (Bonner, 1998, p.166) While Weber made important contributions to Marx’s work, he also brought in unique sociological perspectives to communist commentary. In this sense, Weber’s approach to explaining the rise of modern society can be stated as a ‘debate with the ghost of Karl Marx’.

First of all, Weber agreed with many of Marx’s viewpoints, most notably their shared view of state power in modern societies. To illustrate this point let us consider the role of police. The police, in contradiction to its role as the protector of people, usually tends to protect the interests of the rich and powerful. It is this observation which prompted Weber’s to remark during a speech in 1918 that “the state successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (Bakker, 1999, p.291). Here, Weber was only reiterating Marx’s assessment of the tendencies of the state and its institutions. While agreeing and consolidating many of Marx’s theories, Weber also attempted to refine and expand them. This is especially true with respect to the role of religion in political and economic affairs. While Marx’s leanings toward atheism are well documented, he did not properly evaluate the influence exerted by religion in matters of politics and economics. Weber, on the other hand, saw religion to be pivotal to society and hence included religious considerations alongside economic ones. Although Weber helped enrich the understanding of the then emerging capitalist world order, he did not completely condemn it as Marx did. Weber’s works emphasize the influence of religious beliefs in the affairs of state and society. For example, during his lifetime Christianity was the dominant religious ideology in Germany and most of Europe. So Weber asserted that the rise and flourishing of capitalist economic systems had their underpinnings in the Christian ethic. In other words, the seeds for the eventual flowering of industrial capitalism in Europe from the eighteenth century onwards were already evident in the moral fabric of society as conditioned by principles laid out by Christianity. Indeed, Weber believed that the political and economic institutions of a nation are shaped by its dominant religious ideology. (Sayer, 1991)

Despite the differences in their emphasis, both Marx and Weber greatly influenced scholars, politicians and commentators for generations to come. More importantly, their theories and insights have a direct appeal to lay people, for the state of economic and political organization of society has a direct and immediate bearing on its members. Marx and Weber can also be credited for making sociological discourse accessible to the general population. And by doing so, they expanded the reach of the discipline to a wider audience and enabled it to interpret commonplace events in uncommon ways. While Karl Marx will be remembered as the most influential political scientist of the modern era, Max Weber will be remembered for adding new dimensions and interpretations to Marx’s body of work. It is for this reason that Weber’s approach to explaining the rise of modern society can be stated as a ‘debate with the ghost of Karl Marx’.


Bakker, J. (1999). The Living Legacy of Marx, Durkheim and Weber: Applications and Analyses of Classical Sociological Theory by Modern Social Scientist. The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 36(2), 286+.

Bonner, K. (1998). Reflexivity, Sociology and the Rural-Urban Distinction in Marx, Tonnies and Weber. The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 35(2), 165+.

Sayer, D. (1991). Capitalism and Modernity: An Excursus on Marx and Weber. New York: Routledge.