A comparison of Marx and Weber’s theoretical frameworks for understanding the development of modern capitalism and the social formation of class


            Classical sociology is an area that has witnessed numerous studies and analysis in the modern world. Karl Marx and Max Weber are some of the most discussed thinkers of the classical era. The theories formulated by these two sociologists, have been used in different studies to explain the current state of the society. Additionally, their contributions to the sociology profession are immeasurable since it is impossible to understand sociology without incorporating Marx and Weber’s theories. In this perspective, Marx and Weber’s theoretical frameworks on modern capitalism are an area that has raised numerous debates on their applicability in the contemporary world. Moreover, their theories of social stratification and its relation to capitalism are also highly debatable. The purpose of this paper is to analyze these theories then compare and contrast them in a sociological perspective.


Marx theory on modern capitalism

During the 19th Century, the idea of capitalism was spreading worldwide. More and more economies demonstrated the characteristics of capitalism. This led to the formulation of different theories to explain this phenomenon. According to Karl Marx’s theoretical frameworks, capitalism was mainly based on exploitation. Marx used the terms bourgeoisie and proletariat to explain the different people who made up the economy (Hughes et al 2002). First, the bourgeoisie was a small group of people in the society who had the means of production therefore had the power to manufacture goods and services. On the other hand, the proletariat made up of the largest group of people in the population and provided labor in production. According to Marx, since the bourgeoisie had more financial power, they could easily exploit the proletariat.

Marx theories on capitalism dictate that, the development of capitalism follows three stages. These include the agrarian, transitional and complex stages (Dillon 2010). In the agrarian stage, the economy is based in the rural areas where each person owns a piece of land on which they get enough produce to sustain themselves. In this stage, barter trade is common and does not focus on money as a form of exchange. When this stage is disrupted by events like war and disease, the economy enters the transitional stage. This stage can also be termed as the developmental stage as the economy starts to shift due to new machine inventions. Most people in a society in this stage do not have the required skills to provide labor in the few industries that exist. Money is introduced to the economy and acts as a supporting factor to barter trade. As the economy progresses, it enters the complex stage which involves a more complicated formation. Labor now becomes highly classified as people have different skills (Calhoun, et al 2007, p.122). In this stage, the economy highly depends on the availability of people with the necessary skills. In this stage, the society begins to divide itself into different classes depending on the amount of property one owns.

One of the most notable features of Marx’s theory on capitalism is the exploitation of workers. Labor, being an important aspect of the economy, is seen as an exploitable opportunity. In the capitalist economy, labor is defined as a commodity that is exchanged with another commodity in this case, money. The bourgeoisie buys labor from the proletariat using money. As the capitalists accumulate capital, the workers’ position in the industry becomes more competitive. Employment opportunities are limited and the capitalists pay less for the labor provided. The ratio of labor as compared to the amount of money paid is not equal explaining the exploitation of the workers. According to Marx, as time progresses workers will realize of this exploitation and demand higher wages. In Marx’s theory, wage is only a term for the price of labor as a commodity. When workers realize that the price they are being offered for their commodity is not equal to the amount of labor they put in, conflict arises between them and the capitalist (Allan 2009). In this situation, capitalists have no option but to increase their wages. This leads t a decrease in the capital base of the capitalist thus a search for means of reducing the cost of production. Subsequently, capitalists use technology to provide labor thus displacing the workers. The conflict between the capitalist, workers and means of production-machines will eventually lead to the fall of capitalism Marx opposed the capitalistic form of economy and opted for a form where the proletariats took hold of the means of production. This would ensure a more socialistic economy. In summary, the focus of Marx’s theory on modern capitalism revolves around exploitation. He argues that capitalism denies the society the economic development it deserves.

Weber’s theory on modern capitalism

Max Weber’s views on capitalism are more controversial as he is seen to have had different stands on the issue. In Weber’s book, the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, he explains the origin of capitalism (Morrison 2006). In this book, Weber’s opinion is that capitalism developed as a result of a Calvinistic religious belief that a person’s fate was predetermined by God. In this perspective, a person who was more successful was favored by God. This belief led to the search for economic success by Calvinists who were unsure about their religious beliefs. In Weber’s view, Calvinism enhanced the growth of capitalism as people searched for success in different areas. As a direct result of these beliefs, some people in the society accumulated wealth thus leading to capitalism.

The development of modern capitalism resulted from a rationalization of the earlier forms of capitalism. This involves what Weber refers to as the ‘spirit of capitalism’ or the ‘protestant ethics’ (Morrison 2006, p. 276). In this form of capitalism, there are certain defined ethics that all people are supposed to follow in order to be recognized in the society. One such thing is having a job. It is ethical and almost a requirement for every person to have a job and to work diligently with respect to the employer. This promotes capitalism in that people value providing labor without making clear considerations as to how it affects capitalism. Additionally, capitalism in Weber’s theory was not only an economic issue but also a political one. This involved the fight for political power, which would enable control over the state’s resources. Weber’s solution to capitalism was not socialism but a form of democracy that would favor everyone in the society. It involved the election of leaders by the people who would lead the people in a responsible manner. According to Weber, a communist economy was a recipe for disaster both economically and politically.

Comparison and contrast

            Some similarities exist in Marx’s and Weber’s theories on modern capitalism. The most notable similarity is the emphasis that both put on economy as the source of capitalism. Marx bases his theory of modern capitalism solely on the economy. He continues to identify areas through which the economy has led to capitalism. The classification of people in two groups (bourgeoisie and proletariat) shows that he acknowledges the contribution of economy to capitalism (Hughes et al 2003). A capitalistic society defines people according to who has the means of production and who provides labor. His theory on the development of modern capitalism also focuses on the different stages that an economy goes through before becoming capitalistic. Weber also recognizes the economy as one of the factors that contribute to the development of capitalism. In one of his definitions of capitalism, he classifies people as those who have property and those who do not. The amount of property that a person owns defines their status in the society. This analysis shows that both sociologists identify the economy as the key driving force of capitalism.

One of the major differences between the two theoretical frameworks is Weber’s exclusion of exploitation in his theory of capitalism. As seen in the discussion above, Marx basis his theory on exploitation. He goes into specific details on how the worker is exploited by the capitalist. On the other hand, Weber does not include the issue of exploitation in his theory. He does not mention how capitalism affects the worker since they are the source of labor. Weber explains in detail the characteristics of a capitalistic economy but notably ignores the exploitation of workers.

Another concept that is different in Marx’s and Weber’s approaches is their historical perspective. Marx views capitalism as a phenomenon that appeared only in the society in which he lived in. He says that, “it was the relentlessness of the pursuit of profit which was the distinctive aspect of modern societies” (Hughes et al 2003, p. 95). He goes on to explain that capitalism came about as a result of people’s thirst fro profit. On the other hand, Weber argues that there have been other profit seeking organizations in history who did not exploit people. He argues that capitalism will never stop not unless a more democratic form of governance is established. Another point of contrast in the two theories is that Weber approaches capitalism from several points while Marx does basis his theory on one point. Weber discusses capitalism from the economic, social and political perspectives while Marx discusses it from the economic view only. Another point of difference in their theoretical frameworks is the solutions they give to solve the problem of capitalism. Marx supports socialism as the best solution while Weber is strongly opposed to such ideas. Weber supports a form of governance that supports the democratic election of leaders. In summary, some concepts in these theories are similar while others are different.

Marx’s theory on the formation of social class

The formation of social classes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a much-debated issue. The society was faced with different circumstances that led to the stratification of the society into different groups. Karl Marx approached this issue from an economic perspective. According to his classification, classes could only be based on who had the means of production and who did not have. As seen in the capitalistic classification by Marx, the people were either bourgeoisie or the proletariat. The bourgeoisies were the people with the means of production. This group was made up of owners of factories and other machinery. The proletariat group is made up of people who are involved in the direct production of goods by providing labor in the factories. In Marx’s theory of class, people who belonged to one class must have a common interest (Dillon 2010). In this view, people who belong to a similar class, usually have the same kind of connection to the means of production. For example, all the people in the proletariat provide labor for the machines, which are the means of production. Moreover, people in the same class, have similar views about issues affecting the society.

Marx’s theory recognizes the possibility of making finer partitions from these two. One of the examples given is the existence of the small bourgeoisie, which is a group of people who own some form of means of production but do not require employing other people in the production of goods (Calhoun et al 2007). In most cases, the small bourgeoisie work on the means of production themselves. Marx also defines the relationship between the ruling class and the other classes as that of constant conflict. People in the different classes have differing objectives thus the existence of conflict. In his view, Marx, argues that when the proletariat discovers that he is being exploited by the bourgeoisie, he uses conflict to displace the capitalist by imposing socialism.

Weber’s theory on the formation of social class

            Weber is renowned for his theory on social stratification, which was quite different from Marx’s view. Weber argues that social stratification can be defined in more than one way. He formulated the three-class system, which was used to show how the society is divided into different classes. In Weber’s theory of social classes, three components could be used to define the different classes that existed in the society. These include class, status and power (Ritzer 2002). He also introduced the concept of “life chances” which describes the available opportunities that define a person’s ability to improve their life (Hughes et al 2003, p.95).

The first concept that defines the divisions in the society is class. This is the concept of who owns property and who does not. Weber argues that this is that major dividing factor in the society. This is because of the power that comes with financial freedom. People who own property have power over those who do not as they have the financial power to determine what goods are available in the market and who has access to what. According to Weber, the financial status of a person in the society determines which class he is placed. The second factor of stratification is a person’s status in the society. Certain people in the society have certain prestige that does not necessarily relate to property. For example, the elders have a special place in the society, which cannot be equated to the amount of wealth they have. Similarly, popular people also possess a degree of influence on the people, which is different financial status. For example, famous musicians can largely influence people’s decisions without the involvement of their financial status. The final factor in social classification is power, which can be identified as social or political. In the political arena, people in certain parties have the power to control the public even without the use of their financial power. Additionally, people in certain positions of employment for example the police, have a certain kind of power over the people. In Weber’s theory, conflict between the different classes is not a fundamental concept. In summary, Weber’s concept is based on three concepts: class, status and power.

Comparison and contrast

One of the major similarities between Marx and Weber’s theories of the formation of social class is that the economy is most influential in social stratification. Both Weber and Marx put a certain amount of emphasis on how the economy is used to create divisions in the society. In his theory, Marx gives only two social classifications, which are based on the financial power of the people. Similarly, Weber gives the first stratification as status, which is based on financial power. Both theories show that in any society there has to exist a class of those who own property and those who do not. Additionally, both theorists show that capitalism develops when the ruling class, which is usually made up of those who own property, dominates over those who do not. Another similarity between the two theories is that they both acknowledge that class influences a person’s financial thoughts, access and achievements (Morrison 2006). The class in which a person belongs either limits or opens the channels through which a person can access property. Additionally, a person’s material interests are largely influenced by his class in the society. In this perspective, when you understand a person’s class in the society, it is possible to estimate his material achievements.

Some differences also arise in the analysis of Marx’s and Weber’s social stratification theories. The major difference between these theories is their approach to conflict. Marx specifically defines the relationship between the two classes in his classification as conflicting. According to Marx, the difference of interests always culminates in conflict. Marx goes on to say that, conflict in the different classes is a concept that is defined by the historical process. In his view, even when societies change, the classes remain the same as all the people experience the same changes. Additionally, he argues that conflict between the different classes is as important a concept as it is unavoidable. On the other hand, Weber argues that conflict is not an important part of social stratification. His analysis of social stratification takes a different perspective where he focuses on the different relationships that exist between different classes (Morrison 2006). Since Weber’s method of stratification is not entirely based on people’s financial status, conflict is not applicable in all his classes.

Another difference between these theories is the perspective that Marx takes on worker’s experience. Marx’s focuses on exploitation of worker’s as a major factor affecting people’s experience in a stratified society. He goes into details about how workers are exploited by the capitalists by being paid low wages and working long hours. In his theory, the factor of exploitation stands out as he explains all his concepts. On the other hand, Weber focuses on explaining how life’s chances are affected by social stratification. He excludes the concept of exploitation but addresses what life chances people have depending on their social class. In this view, Marx recognizes slaves as a social class on its own while Weber does not. In summary, Marx and Weber’s views on social classes differ in the perceptions they take in the expression of their ideas.


            Karl Marx and Max Weber’s share some ideas as seen in their theories on the development of modern capitalism and the formation of social classes. On the other hand, there are also some notable differences in their expression of ideas. One of the most notable differences is the inclusion of exploitation by Marx, which has been excluded by Weber. Similarly, the method in which Weber approaches the formation of social classes is different from how Marx discusses it. In conclusion, the theoretical frameworks through which Marx and Weber approach these theories contain some similarities but display distinct differences.



Allan, K.D. (2009) Explorations in Classical Sociological Theory: Seeing the Social World, London, UK: Sage.
Calhoun, C., and Gerteis, J. (2007) Classical Sociological Theory 2nd ed., Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Dillon, Michele (2010) Introduction to Sociological Theory, Oxford, UK: Wiley: Blackwell.

Hughes, J.A., Martin, W. and Sharrock, W. (2003) Understanding Classical Sociology, 2nd ed., London, UK: Sage.

Morrison, K. (2006) Marx, Durkheim, Weber: Formations of Modern Social Thought, 2nd ed., London, UK: Sage.

Ritzer, G. (2002) The Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists, Oxford, UK: Blackwell.


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