Ideas & Debates
IDEAS & DEBATES
Weber’s Protestant Ethic: a Marxist Critique
The classical work by Max Weber has been used by sociologists and other scholars to proclaim the predominance of ideas over material forces. This is a critical reassessment of his work through the lenses of historical materialism.
March 25, 2017
In this article, I critically analyze what is considered Max Weber’s most relevant sociological contribution, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I make an attempt to contrast his worldview with that of Marx and other authors in the historical materialist tradition. Protestant asceticism is considered by Weber a central ideological underpinning for the emergence of modern capitalism. Although he lays out a nuanced analysis—widely overstretched by many scholars following his line of thought—he explicitly criticizes historical materialism as a framework that is inadequate in explaining the rise of capitalism.
In The Protestant Ethic we can identify what is arguably the central debate between Weberian and Marxist schools of thought: the predominance of ideas versus the centrality of material conditions and class struggle in the making of history.
More recent studies relying on heavily quantitative (and questionable) methods have tested versions of Weber’s thesis, obtaining negative results. Moreover, a reverse causality hypothesis has been proposed with convincing although not definitive argumentation.
Finally, two aspects of The Protestant Ethic gravely undermine its explanatory power and compromise its historical accuracy: the complete lack of reference to material conditions, including the process of primitive accumulation, as a driving thrust for capitalism to develop; and the poor quality of the evidence provided.
The Protestant Ethic
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is considered the most important work written by Max Weber. Even though all his work can be understood as part of a constant discussion with Marxism, in The Protestant Ethic he puts forward a theory of the origins of capitalism that draws a sharp contrast with historical materialism.
Weber places at the center of his analysis the influence that the expansion of protestant religious denominations and the moral values they preached had on the emergence and growth of the mindset and human behavior necessary to maintain capitalism: what he calls the ‘spirit’ of capitalism.
With this as his purpose, he takes Benjamin Franklin’s writing as a privileged example and representative testimony of what he sees as the ambition for money-making, the auri sacra fames.
In his view,
“[Benjamin Franklin] saw his discovery of the ‘usefulness’ of virtue as a revelation from God, who wished to direct him toward virtue by this means. Instead, the ‘summum bonum’ of this ethic is the making of money and yet more money, coupled with strict avoidance of all uninhibited enjoyment.”
“The aim of a man’s life is indeed moneymaking (…). This reversal of what we might call the ‘natural’ state of affairs is a definite leitmotiv of capitalism.” (Weber, 2002, p. 12)
The ‘innerwordly asceticism’ encouraged by Calvinism and other protestant churches would be mainly reinforced by the notion of ‘predestination’ which asserts that success in the economic activities is a proof of being blessed by the grace of God. In this way, a man pursuing profits while performing the job that is presented to him as his vocation (the ‘calling’) was in itself honoring God’s will. Likewise, for the lower classes of society, ascetic discipline and hard work became a religious imperative. In his own words:
“(…) a religious value was placed on ceaseless, constant, systematic labor in a secular calling as the very highest ascetic path and at the same time the surest and most visible proof of regeneration and the genuineness of faith. This was inevitably the most powerful lever imaginable with which to bring about the spread of that philosophy of life which we have here termed the ‘spirit’ of capitalism. And if that restraint on consumption is combined with the freedom to strive for profit, the result produced will inevitably be the creation of capital through the ascetic compulsion to save.” (Weber, 2002, p. 116)
Gorski (2003) points out that Weber’s theory runs into a problem by giving such a central importance to the aspect of predestination, since some denominations developed an ethic of innerwordly asceticism but nevertheless rejected the doctrine of predestination. Weber finally evades this problem when he suggests that it is the ecclesiastical polity that all sects have in common that enforces the ascetic discipline of Protestants and not so much a single, specific doctrine. This theoretical maneuver inevitably weakens the argument of Weber’s thesis.
Room for other views?
Weber does not claim that this is the only possible interpretation. In fact, he writes that “[w]hat we understand by the ‘spirit’ of capitalism in terms of what we deem essential from our point of view, is by no means the only possible way of understanding it.” (Weber, 2002, p. 9) He then leaves the door open for other interpretations and points of view while arguing that this is the one that he deems essential.
Weber thus, on the one hand, argues that the spread of the protestant ethic played a central role in the making of capitalism, or at least the “capitalist spirit” that was a prerequisite for the emergence of capitalism. A central element in this process was the way in which religious sects and churches stemming from the Reformation shaped the behavior of both workers and capitalists. At the same time, he acknowledges that other thinkers may have different points of view, with other causal factors taking predominant importance.
At the very end of the book he states that
“It cannot, of course, be our purpose to replace a one-sided ‘materialist’ causal interpretation of culture and history with an equally one-sided spiritual one. Both are equally ‘possible’, but neither will serve historical truth if they claim to be the conclusion of the investigation rather than merely the preliminary work for it.” (Weber, 2002, p. 122)
These words are presented to the reader after 100 pages of explaining in great detail the different Protestant strands, their values, and their influence on the conduct of people. He does acknowledge the material causes in this development, but he does not consider them as important as the ideas of religious asceticism.
A vulgar criticism of Max Weber’s work is that he does not take material forces into account and that he claims that the origins of capitalism are merely a consequence of the ideas transmitted by Protestant ethics. As we have seen, his analysis is more nuanced than this. However, he draws important limits to the power of transformation of economic forces and their enforcement by the state.
“Mercantilist regulation by the state was able to bring industries into being, but, at least on its own, could not produce the capitalist ‘spirit’—indeed, where this regulation took on a character like that of authoritarian police, the spirit might actually be paralyzed by it.” (Weber, 2002, p. 103)
At the same time, he acknowledges that at the time he is writing, the “capitalist spirit” is largely imposed by the economic structure of our societies, and that there is
“no necessary connection between that chrematistic conduct of life and any one uniform philosophy of life (…). [C]apitalism, having emerged victorious, has liberated itself from the old supports.” (Weber, 2002, p. 25)
Today’s capitalism (…) creates and trains, by means of ‘economic selection,’ the economic subjects—entrepreneurs and workers—that it needs. (Weber, 2002, p. 13)
However, he does not forgo the opportunity to draw attention to the narrow limits of historical materialism. Referring to the idea of hard work in the pursuit of economic advancement, he states:
“The early progress of such new ‘ideas’ is, however, beset by many more obstacles than the theoreticians of the ‘superstructure’ [e.i., historical materialism] assume; they do not blossom like flower. The capitalist spirit (…) has had to prove itself in a hard struggle against a world of hostile forces.” (Weber, 2002, p. 12)
We see then that, in Weber’s viewpoint, ideas are the live forces behind new developments, and history is written according to these ideas. The ideas of hard work and money-making are struggling for (and winning) their space in world history against ‘hostile forces.’
This brings us to the main point of contention between Weberian and Marxist theoretical frameworks when it comes to history and social transformation: the power of ideas versus material conditions and class struggle.
The Power of Ideas
Ideas play a prominent role in Max Weber´s conception of history. Referring to the first entrepreneurs and the transition from feudalism to capitalism, he states
“In such cases (and this is the main point), it was not normally an influx of money that brought about this revolution—in a number of cases known to me the entire “revolutionizing process” was set in motion with a few thousand marks capital borrowed from relatives: it was the new spirit at work—the ‘spirit of capitalism.’ The question of the motive forces behind the development of capitalism is not primarily a question of the origin of money reserves to be used, but a question of the development of the capitalist spirit.” (p. 22)
So through the ideology or moral values shared and spread by Protestants, would-be capitalists were infused with the tools and ambition to make business. New capitalists were full of “energy and clarity of vision”, with “outstanding ethical qualities (…). It is these qualities above all which made possible the infinitely more intensive work rate that is now demanded of the entrepreneur.” The ethics embodied by Protestants played a decisive role, Weber contends, by aligning God’s grace with economic asceticism, exerting strong influence on middle-class people and businessmen who would pursue their economic interests and please their God in doing so.
An Irresistible “Calling”
What is more surprising in Weber’s reasoning is that this same line of ethical prescriptions was purportedly key in making available “sober, conscientious, and unusually capable workers, who were devoted to work as the divinely willed purpose of life.” The same religious asceticism gave shape to the economically driven behavior of the emerging bourgeoisie and to a disciplined, submissive working class that would fill the factories a couple centuries later. Following his line of reasoning, the calling – a term ostensibly coined by Martin Luther that expressed the ‘call’ of God to perform an occupation— would exert such a power over the peasants and poor people that they would be compelled to change the way they had lived for centuries, move to the nascent towns and cities, and work for a miserable pay.
What he doesn’t mention in his argument is the utterly disruptive, violent process of primitive accumulation, by which peasants were deprived of their land (and with it, of their means of subsistence) and forced into the labor market. Weber’s account of the events is rosy and unidimensional:
“What happened was often simply this. A young man from one of the putter-out families from the town moved to the country, carefully selected the weavers he needed, tightened up control over them and made them more dependent, thus turning peasants into workers. He also took personal charge of sales, approaching the ultimate buyers, the retail stores (…)” (Weber, 2009, p. 21)
This is a naïve picture of capitalists and their ascendance to powerful economic positions. There is no exploitation, no coercion of a class by another, no plunder, only religious asceticism driving both parties to play their roles.
In Volume 1 of Capital Marx zeroes in on the mechanism by which “peasants were turned into workers.” Far from a peaceful transition, the process entailed massive pillage and displacement:
“In the history of primitive accumulation, all revolutions are epoch-making that act as levers for the capitalist class in the course of its formations; but this is true above all for those moments when great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labour-market as free, unprotected and rightless proletarians. The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil is the basis of the whole process.” (Marx, 1990, p. 876)
The enclosure of the commons was the practical way in which this process was carried out. The common arable lands where peasants grew their products in the Middle Ages were arbitrarily appropriated and turned into private pasture land through economic and forcible means. In England, this process started to take place in the late fifteenth and beginnings of the sixteenth century. By the mid-eighteenth century, the English yeomen had virtually disappeared. The State first opposed this plunder but later legitimized the theft of land by passing the “Enclosure Acts,” a set of bills that bequeathed property rights to those who had claimed ownership of the appropriated land. Fences now kept landless peasants outside these lands. With the creation of a massive army of laborers, it would only be a matter of time until they flocked to urban concentrations driven by the urge to secure their survival. If there was, concurrently, a religious asceticism encouraging and reinforcing workers’ discipline and hard work, its importance pales in comparison to the inescapable pursuit of their livelihood.
This process of primitive accumulation took place at different times in other countries.
Henryk Grossman (Grossman, 2006) reminds us that in the cities of France, England, Holland and Belgium, unemployed adults and their children were driven into houses of forced labor, ‘manufactories’. Grossman provides insightful quotes from Montchrestien’s “Treaty of Political Economy” to show how the training of the landless, jobless poor in order to turn them into disciplined workers was a violent, state-enforced operation.
The complete omission of any reference to the process of primitive accumulation and the creation of a large population devoid of the very means of subsistence is, in my opinion, the weakest aspect of Weber’s Protestant Ethic.
A Chronological Problem?
A key aspect of Weber’s argument is the chronology he uses to explain the origin of capitalism. Although he does not propose a specific point in time at which this transition takes place, he recognizes a qualitative transformation around the eighteenth or nineteenth century in Western Europe. This is a correct departure from classical theories that saw a continuous in crescendo global trade and a smooth transition from feudalism to capitalism.
Weber refers to the highly developed economy of fourteenth and fifteenth century Florence, the “center of world ‘capitalism’” [quote-marks around capitalism in the original]. He points out that a strong profit-seeking attitude was morally dubious in that historical context although this same attitude was the moral standard in Franklin’s eighteenth-century Virginia, where the economy was much less developed. On these grounds, he contends that historical materialism is not able to explain the spirit of capitalism, for the material conditions do not explain the predominant moral values of each epoch.
However, some have pointed out that Benjamin Franklin’s writings should not be taken as the ethical values of his time. Dickson and McLachlan contend that Franklin is actually merely offering his advice, rather than putting forward moral imperatives. (Dickson & McLachlan, 1989)
Others have criticized Weber’s whole paradigm particularly because Florentines were able to build a capitalist empire, without any Protestant influence at all. (Grossman, 2006) The question is, then, when did capitalism arise?
French economic historian Fernand Braudel and the scholars of the world-system theory have proposed that capitalism begun around the fifteenth century (Arrighi, 1994; Braudel, 1982; Wallerstein, 1979). The civilizations that had epicenters in Florence and in the Netherlands are considered by these authors to have had the first capitalist economies. Robert Brenner, Ellen Meiksins Woods and others have correctly pointed out that these economies did not rely so much on a capitalist mode of production as they did on commerce (Brenner, 1976; Wood, 2002). We would have to wait until the late eighteenth century to see the first economies in which profit was created predominantly through the production of commodities. The lust for profit and wealth, however, were brewing slowly in these global trade hubs for centuries, and they would eventually move to the places in which new centers of commerce and finance emerged.
Here is where one of the main problems of Weber’s thesis arises. He is using the hypothesis of reverse causality: what if the development of capitalism not only deeply influenced the protestant ethics (a possibility acknowledged by Weber) but also created the conditions for this religious doctrine to thrive?
Richard H Tawney delves into this issue. As quoted in Pierotti (Pierotti, 2003), Tawney states:
“There was plenty of capitalist spirit in fifteenth century Venice and Florence, or in south Germany and Flanders, for the simple reason that these areas were the greatest commercial and financial centers of the age. The development of capitalism in Holland and England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were due, not to the fact that they were Protestant powers but to large economic movements, in particular the Discoveries and the results which flowed from them.” (Tawney, 1926)
Although Weber admits that the Protestant ethic was possibly influenced by material conditions, the thrust of his thought is pointing in the opposite direction. The evidence he provides, however, is not enough to prove his argument.
Max Weber is known for his erudition. The comprehensive and in-depth study about the different strands of Protestant sects and the moral values they transmitted is a phenomenal work. However, a major flaw of The Protestant Ethic is the poor evidence backing the arguments that constitute Weber’s main contentions. The book is plagued with sentences such as, “[a]s every manufacturer knows…” (p.15) or “[i]t is often said, and recently this was confirmed to me with regard to the linen industry by a relative…” (p. 18). Many of the arguments that form the lynchpin of The Protestant Ethic are backed only by anecdotal evidence.
At any rate, the evidence provided by Weber in his seminal work would not have met the minimum standards required by academia today.
The main discussion is not about to what extent the protestant ethic gained popularity. The question is how much it imposed a new way of engaging in economic activities and the attitude towards work, and whether it helped bring about capitalism. Although Weber tends to be cautious about his assertions and causal attributions, a wide range of scholars have taken his thesis to higher levels. Delacroix and Nielsen explain how a ‘Common Interpretation’ was built around his thesis and “has taken life of its own.” (Delacroix & Nielsen, 2001) The Common Interpretation posits that those countries in which the Protestant ethic took hold and spread more widely had faster and stronger economic development. The authors did not engage in debate about whether this interpretation is true to Weber’s thesis or not but instead created a statistical model to test this hypothesis: the results were strongly negative. It would be unfair and wrong to test Weber’s sophisticated thesis on the Protestant ethic against a strictly quantitative model. The authors are instead testing the “Common Interpretation” of Weber’s thesis, but their results are still relevant.
In a similar study, Harvard economist Davide Cantoni generated a quantitative model to test whether the spread of Protestant affiliation and ethical values affected economic growth in 276 German cities between 1300 and 1900. (Cantoni, 2015) These results were negative as well.
Another ‘expansion’ of The Protestant Ethic thesis is the one Gorski proposed in his Disciplinary Revolution (Gorski, 2003). He posits that the disciplinary ethics preached by Calvinists allowed modern nation-states to grow stronger, helped pacify the popular classes, and enabled smoother governance.
Regardless of the more or less accurate results of specific studies that build on The Protestant Ethic, all elaborations seek to reaffirm the predominance of cultural developments over material forces in the origin of capitalism.
The Protestant Ethic is a remarkable collection of insights and historical evidence about the doctrine and practice of the different protestant denominations — although it does become less than interesting after the first 50 pages. The rational, profit-driven attitude encouraged by Protestant doctrine is clearly reflected in the conduct businessmen developed with the emergence of capitalism. Likewise, the ascetic discipline matches the behavior expected of workers and enforced upon them. However, the causal link between protestant moral prescriptions and the ‘spirit’ of capitalism remains far from proven. Furthermore, there is a solid argument for reversal causality, i.e., that the material conditions brought about by capitalism heavily influenced protestant ethics and facilitated their dissemination.
Although Weber formally focuses on only one aspect of the development of capitalism, the overwhelming importance given to the power of ideas and culture makes it an argument against a materialist understanding of history. The lack of any reference to primitive accumulation is probably the most important shortcoming of his work.
It needs to be said that the evidence presented by the author is mostly anecdotal rather than empirical. This and the complete neglect of historical material conditions and class conflict undercuts the value of his contribution.
His attempt to bring the cultural transformation led by Reformation to the forefront of the genesis of capitalism runs into several contradictions. He acknowledges that protestant ethics were themselves influenced by the material forces that were giving birth to capitalism. Furthermore, he recognizes that at the moment he is writing, economic imperatives rather than religious asceticism are the driving force that guarantees workers’ discipline and businessmen’s profits.
In sum, the claim that religious asceticism had some influence in encouraging discipline among workers and a money-making attitude among entrepreneurs is reasonable and likely. The contention that it was a central piece in the origins and spread of capitalism is a stretch and fails the test of historical and scientific accuracy.
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