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Max Weber


Disciplines > Sociology > Max Weber

Religion and the rise of capitalism | Where capitalism is not | Society and the state | See also


Max Weber (1864 – 1920) was a left-wing liberal German political economist and sociologist. He despised the nobility and the seeking of power for its own ends.

He studied capitalism in general and the part of religion in particular.

Religion and the rise of capitalism

Some religions enable the march of capitalism, whilst others, such as Hinduism and Confucianism, do not. A key trigger in the Reformation was the removal of simple guarantees of being saved through belief, which led people to seek other routes to salvation.

Protestant work ethic

Weber coined the term 'Protestant work ethic' to describe a dedication to simplicity and hard work that the Protestant branches of the Christian church espoused.

The paradox of the Protestant work ethic was that whilst hard work led to commercial success, it was a sin (particularly in Calvinism) to spend the money on oneself or religious icons (Protestant churches are very simple, unlike Catholic ones). The way out was investment, which simply led to even more commercial success.

Mass-production also supported Protestant ideas of equality and countered individualism.

Commercial success and personal simplicity was seen as a particular demonstration of piety. If you can be rich yet resist the easy temptation it brings, then surely you will get into heaven.

The evolution of capitalism

In this way, modern capitalism actually grew from religious seeking of wealth as a symbol of work.

Over time in Western society the temptations of spending money on oneself increased and perhaps led to the decline in the religious element. Capitalism was thus established as a 'religion' of its own.

Capitalism unfettered

Weber described the spirit of capitalism as the ideas and habits that support the rational pursuit of economic gain.

Without the restraints of religion, greed and laziness lead to making the maximum amount of money for the minimum effort.

Where capitalism is not

Weber noted that Capitalism was not a necessary nor inevitable thing.


In his study of Chinese religions of Confucianism and Taoism, Weber noted that several factors did not lead to Capitalism, including:

  • Confucianism supported many cults and variations. There was no unified priestly class.

  • The Emperor was the high priest and worshipped to the gods. The people stuck to their ancestors.

  • There was no unifying force to challenge the Emperor. Guilds were many and kinship loyalty fragmented society.

  • Confucianism taught that pursuit of wealth was wrong (but having was not). People thus sought status in officialdom, which was unified with the emperor.

  • Sale of land was often prohibited.

Confucianism was the state cult. Taoism was the popular 'religion', which was more a pacifist philosophy and had no gods.


Weber studied of the orthodoxy of Hinduism and the heterodoxy of Buddhism within the sociology of India.

Indian society is based around the status division of castes, made up of priests, warriors, merchants and workers, which inhibited the development of urban status groups, as castes were evenly spread and fixed social grouping.

The religions support this status quo with a view of an immutable world order. Notions of Karma and fatalism thus lead to people accepting their lot. The world was interpreted in mystical ways and intellectuals tended to be apolitical. There was also no 'Messianic prophesy' that gave hope of better things to the common people.

Society and the state

Weber noted the pre-eminence of the state in Western culture.

He recognized the need for 'ideal types' of society, but with an understanding that ideals are gross simplifications, missing out much of the messy reality.

He identified a 'three-component theory of stratification' of society:

  • Social class: based on economic relationship to the market, e.g. employee, owner, lessee.
  • Status: based on non-economical elements, e.g. religion, family, qualification.
  • Party: affiliations to political parties and groups, e.g. Liberal, Greenpeace, Conservative.

Monopoly on force

The state has a monopoly on physical force and the use of this is given to police and military only. All other use is outlawed, except to defend one's body or property in given circumstances.

In the past, the church has been able to use force, for example in inquisitions and witch-hunts, but this right has gradually been removed.

Political leadership

Weber identified three pure types of political leadership:

  • Domination and authority: charismatic domination by families and religions.
  • Traditional domination: authoritarian domination by patriarchs and through feudal societies.
  • Legal domination: in modern systems of state and bureaucracy.

He counsels politicians to combing the ethics of ultimate ends and of responsibility, having both passion for the work and the ability to distance oneself from the people being governed.


Weber is also very well known for his descriptions of bureaucracy. He did not particularly like it, but realized that, done well, it is both efficient and effective.

He was concerned that social values of grace and benevolence would be replaced by cold utilitarian values and officialdom. This is similar to Marx's principle of alienation.

He predicted correctly that the Soviet communist system would end up as an over-bureaucratized state.

He identified seven factors that govern a bureaucratic organization: rules, specialization, meritocracy, hierarchy, separate ownership, impersonality and accountability.

See also


Weber, M. (1947). The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. (Translated by AM Henderson & Talcott Parsons). NY: The Free Press

Weber, M. (1958). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, New York: Scribner's Press

Weber, M. (1951). The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, New York: The Free Press

Weber, M. (1958) The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, New York: The Free Press

Weber, M. (1918). Politics as a Vocation, in H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (Translated and edited), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, pp. 77-128, New York: Oxford University Press, 1946


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