“Spirit of Protestantism”: Searching for Weberian Thesis in Marx
By Hash Vardhan
Max Weber’s seminal text The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism published more than a century ago, in the words of Anthony Giddens, “ranks as one of the most renowned, and controversial works of modern social science.” The continued significance and popularity of this essay stems from two points. First, from a sociological point of view, Weber’s analysis explicates the relationship between religion and economy and broader social change and thus forms an important part of social theory. Secondly, the essay, apart from serving an academic purpose, also serves an overt political-ideological purpose. As Marx’s writing are critical of capitalism and liberal tradition, from the very date of its publication, Weber’s essay became a critique of Marxism and thereby of the socialist project. Apart from that, the essay also sparked a critical debate which was participated by Economists, Marxists, Catholics, and Protestants, each criticizing Weber from their respective viewpoints.
Even though Weber never mentioned Marx in his essay, it was directed against economic determinism and Marxist analysis of capitalism. Weber says that his study is “a contribution to the understanding of the manner in which ideas become effective force in history.” Given the political and intellectual climate in which he was working, Weber was aware that his thesis might be interpreted as negation of historical materialist understanding and therefore he added two caveats in his work, one at the beginning and another at the end of his presentation. In the very beginning of the book he strongly reminded his readers that it would be ‘foolish’ to think that the “spirit of capitalism could only have arisen as a result of certain effects of reformation or capitalism as an economic system is a creation of the Reformation.” While at the end of his thesis, he reminds his readers that it is not his “aim to substitute for a one-sided materialistic an equally one-sided spiritualistic causal interpretation…each is equally possible.” But despite these multiple reminders, this classical work continues to be presented as a) comprehensive history of capitalism and b) as counter to Marxist or say historical materialist understanding of capitalism unabridged, which is more a result of political-ideological biases rather than academic considerations. Talcott Parsons, who translated Weber’s essay and republished it, presented it as an anti-Marxist interpretation of capitalism and its genesis.
That this text, which should be appreciated for its ingenuity, continues to be read in the shadow of Marx can be simply grasped from an article written by the celebrated representative face of liberal capitalism, Francis Fukuyama, in 2005. Celebrating the 100th anniversary of Weber’s essay, Fukuyama begins his article – aptly titled “The Calvinist Manifesto” – by invoking Marx. Praising the book, Fukuyama writes, “It was a book that stood Karl Marx on his head. Religion, according to Weber, was not an ideology produced by economic interests (the “opiate of the masses,” as Marx had put it); rather, it was what had made the modern capitalist world possible.” Here Fukuyama not only presents a misinterpretation of one of the most misunderstood quotes of Marx, but also betrays Weber by not heeding his reminder.
Even in academic institutions, as sociologist Pramjit S. Judge remarks, “the general impression a student of sociology gets is that Weber is offering a grand theory of the emergence of capitalism as an alternative to that of Marx. In contradistinction to Marx’s explanation of treating material factors as the causal force, Weber is essentially arguing that over and above material/economic factors are ideas.” Despite several refutations and critiques, the continuance of this Parsonian framework only substantiates the remarks of sociologist Irving Zeitlin who famously said that Weber was debating with the ghost of Marx. Commenting on sociology of religion of both Marx and Weber, Joseph A Schumpeter writes, “The whole of Max Weber’s facts and arguments fits perfectly into Marx’s system.”
What has been called the Weberian thesis basically points out affinity between the capitalist spirit and certain Protestant maxims. Weber defines the spirit of capitalism as “ascetic compulsion to save” and “rational conduct in economic life”. The spirit of capitalism, according to Weber, was the result of imposition of religious maxims on to everyday economic activity. This spirit of capitalism found its religious sanction in protestant doctrine of predestination and idea of calling, which in combination with Puritan work ethic produced what Weber conceptualized as ‘worldly asceticism’. Weber’s thesis is not about the development of capitalist relations of production or how capitalism originated; instead it is concerned with one aspect of the early stages of development of capitalism, i.e. accumulation and its connection with ascetic Protestantism. Asceticism as a value and outlook helped to develop capitalist accumulation.
It is often claimed that Weber was the first to present the elective affinity between Protestantism and capitalism. Though this claim is true as he presented a coherent and systematic study on the subject, but it would be wrong to say that association of ascetic values with development of capitalism had not attracted the attention of previous scholars and theoreticians. Below, I will be presenting similar, but not exact, linkages between the capitalist spirit and asceticism as provided by none other than Marx, against whose methodology Weber was making an argument.
Though Marx never produced any coherent and systematic arguments about the role of ascetic values in the development of capitalism, he did talk about it across his works. In what follows, I have quoted the words of Marx extensively to help readers make their own judgements on my interpretation. Even if the readers do not agree with me, I hope to persuade them that at least Marx had more interesting things to say on the relationship between religion and capitalism in general, as it is generally understood. The passages which I reproduce chronologically will show that the elective affinity between certain protestant ideas and the capitalist spirit did not go unnoticed by Marx in his historical materialist presentation of capitalism.
In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts originally written in 1844, Marx talks about how the science of Political Economy first eulogized asceticism as a value which had to be inculcated. According to Marx, the ethics of political economy is “acquisition, work, thrift, and sobriety.” About the capitalist theory of asceticism, he writes:
Political economy, this science of wealth, is therefore simultaneously the science of renunciation, of want, of saving…this science of marvellous industry is simultaneously the science of asceticism, and its true ideal is the ascetic but extortionate miser and the ascetic but productive slave…Thus political economy – despite its worldly and voluptuous appearance – is a true moral science, the most moral of all the sciences. Self-renunciation, the renunciation of life and of all human needs, is its principal thesis. The less you eat, drink and buy books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorise, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save – the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor rust will devour – your capital…it wants to do nothing but create itself, buy itself; for everything else is after all its servant…all passions and all activity must therefore be submerged in avarice…
Next, in The German Ideology, a collective endeavour of Marx and Engels published in 1846, commenting on the ‘philosophy of enjoyment’, and its relationship with class location and general economic development, they write:
In the Middle Ages…the nobility was the estate privileged to devote itself exclusively to pleasure, while the separation of work and enjoyment already existed for the bourgeoisie and pleasure was subordinated to work. The serfs, the class destined exclusively to labour, had only extremely few and restricted. Pleasures, which came their way mostly by chance, depended on the whim of their masters and other contingencies, and are hardly worth considering.
Next, in Grundrisse, a series of unpublished notebooks written by Marx in 1857-58, he draws a direct homology between Protestant asceticism and capitalism. Marx writes,
The cult of money has its asceticism, its self-denial, its self-sacrifice – economy and frugality, contempt for mundane, temporal and fleeting pleasures; the chase after the eternal treasure. Hence the connection between English Puritanism, or also Dutch Protestantism, and money-making.
In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy published in 1859, Marx draws another analogy between tendencies to save money and Puritan ethic. He observes:
Incidentally, in so far as the hoarder of money combines asceticism with assiduous diligence he is intrinsically a Protestant by religion and still more a Puritan.
In Volume 1 of Capital, Marx again reiterates his understanding of the relationship between asceticism and the spirit of capitalism. In Part A (Hoarding) of section 3 (Money) of Chapter 3, Marx writes,
In order that gold may be held as money, and made to form a hoard, it must be prevented from circulating, or from transforming itself into a means of enjoyment. The hoarder, therefore, makes a sacrifice of the lusts of the flesh to his gold fetish. He acts in earnest up to the Gospel of abstention. On the other hand, he can withdraw from circulation no more than what he has thrown into it in the shape of commodities. The more he produces, the more he is able to sell. Hard work, saving, and avarice are, therefore, his three cardinal virtues, and to sell much and buy little the sum of his political economy.
Later, in Section 3 of Chapter 24, Marx presents a historical view of how asceticism had influenced the accumulation of capital in the early stages of its development and later on how and why the ascetic values were discarded. He writes,
But original sin is at work everywhere. As capitalist production, accumulation, and wealth, become developed, the capitalist ceases to be the mere incarnation of capital. He has a fellow-feeling for his own Adam, and his education gradually enables him to smile at the rage for asceticism, as a mere prejudice of the old-fashioned miser. While the capitalist of the classical type brands individual consumption as a sin against his function, and as “abstinence” from accumulating, the modernised capitalist is capable of looking upon accumulation as “abstinence” from pleasure.
At the historical dawn of capitalist production — and every capitalist upstart has personally to go through this historical stage — avarice, and desire to get rich, are the ruling passions. But the progress of capitalist production not only creates a world of delights; it lays open, in speculation and the credit system, a thousand sources of sudden enrichment. When a certain stage of development has been reached, a conventional degree of prodigality, which is also an exhibition of wealth, and consequently a source of credit, becomes a business necessity to the ‘unfortunate’ capitalist. Luxury enters into capital’s expenses of representation.
In the same section, Marx quotes Dr. John Akin’s observation from his work A Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles Round Manchester (1785), where he describes the four stages of development of trade in Manchester. Akin divides the four periods on the basis of attitude of manufacturers towards what in the context of this article be called asceticism and capitalist spirit.
In the first period, manufacturers were obliged to work hard for their livelihood “because average profits were low and to accumulate, extreme parsimony was requisite…they lived like misers and were far from consuming even the interest on their capital.” In the second period, “they had begun to acquire little fortunes, but worked as hard as before…and lived in as plain a manner as before.” Luxury started making inroads in the third period as “trade was pushed by sending out riders for orders into every market town in the Kingdom which brought them profits.” It was only with the Industrial Revolution in the second half of the 18th century that – what Akin describes as the fourth period – “expense and luxury have made great progress, and was supported by a trade extended by means of riders and factors through every part of Europe.” According to Marx, the attitudinal change of the Bourgeoisie towards luxury and self-enjoyment changed after 1758, i.e. after the Industrial Revolution when profits increased exponentially as they discarded what Marx previously called the ‘rage of asceticism’.
In the section on Commodity Fetishism, Marx also talks about a philosophical homology between capitalism and Protestant forms of Christianity in particular and Christianity in general. He writes:
The religious world is but the reflex of the real world. And for a society based upon the production of commodities, in which the producers in general enter into social relations with one another by treating their products as commodities and values, whereby they reduce their individual private labour to the standard of homogeneous human labour – for such a society, Christianity with its cultus of abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, &c., is the most fitting form of religion.
In continuation of the same passage, Marx has argued how the production of commodities in different historical epochs is related with the religious conceptions of the concerned epoch. He connects the development of ‘individuality’ with the economic development and thereby with religious development:
In the ancient Asiatic and other ancient modes of production, we find that the conversion of products into commodities, and therefore the conversion of men into producers of commodities, holds a subordinate place, which, however, increases in importance as the primitive communities approach nearer and nearer to their dissolution… [In] those ancient social organisms of production are, as compared with bourgeois society, extremely simple and transparent. But they are founded either on the immature development of man individually, who has not yet severed the umbilical cord that unites him with his fellowmen in a primitive tribal community, or upon direct relations of subjection. They can arise and exist only when the development of the productive power of labour has not risen beyond a low stage, and when, therefore, the social relations within the sphere of material life, between man and man, and between man and Nature, are correspondingly narrow. This narrowness is reflected in the ancient worship of Nature, and in the other elements of the popular religions.
What will only come as surprise to readers, in a footnote to Chapter 27 titled “Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land” of Capital Vol 1, Marx used the phrase ‘spirit of Protestantism’ to denote the opposition of ‘Poor law’ by few landed proprietors and well-to-do farmers as well as to denote the expulsion of people from their land. In fact, the ‘poor laws’ were criticized by several protestants like Reverend Joseph Townsend and none other than the ‘historical individual’ of Weber, i.e. Benjamin Franklin. Marx also notes that most of the population theorists – who also were critical of poor laws – were affiliated with Protestant theology.
Apart from the passages which I have reproduced above which essentially deal with ideological homology between Protestantism and capitalism, Marx has also commented on the economic aspect of reformation which led to the development of capitalism. According to Marx, the “process of forcible expropriation of the people received in the 16th century a new and frightful impulse from the Reformation, and from the consequent colossal spoliation of the church property […] the suppression of the monasteries etc. … hurled their inmates into the proletariat,” thereby creating a labour reservoir. Also in a footnote to Capital Vol 1, Marx observes, “Protestantism, by changing almost all the traditional holidays into workdays, plays an important part in the genesis of capital,” thus referring to ideology of work.
In the above section, I reproduced some of the passages where Marx has directly talked about the relations between asceticism, religious beliefs and capitalist spirit – both on economic and ideological planes. Now, if we undertake a comparative exercise of Karl Marx and Max Weber’s ideas about the role and linkages between asceticism and capitalist spirit, we can chart out some commonalities as well as certain key differences.
Both Marx and Weber agree that there did exist something like ‘Capitalist Spirit’, which manifested itself with terms like thrift, frugality, hard work, etc. While Weber classified it as the ‘Spirit of Capitalism’, Marx refrained from naming it, except identifying it with the science of Political Economy.
Role of Asceticism in the development of Capitalism: Both Marx and Weber agree that ascetic attitude and frugality of the capitalist did have a positive role to play in the development of capitalism, as it helped the accumulation of capital. However, the difference between the two arises in the source of asceticism. While for Weber, the exclusive source was Christian asceticism, for Marx the source of asceticism flowed from the logic of capital itself couched in religious terms. In fact, what Weber proposed in his thesis was couched in a secular language among the classical political economists.
Role of Asceticism in mature stage of Capitalism: Another commonality between Marx and Weber is about the fate of asceticism after the maturity of capitalism. In the penultimate page of his essay, Weber writes, “…spirit of religious asceticism has escaped from the cage…victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its supporter no longer.” Marx too observed that ascetic values once it played its role in initial accumulation of capital, was discarded by the modernized capitalist who looked upon accumulation as “abstinence” from pleasure. The understanding of Marx and Weber over bourgeois abstinence from asceticism is different. While Marx locates the ‘escaping of asceticism from cage’ to the maturity of capitalism itself which manifests in manifold increase of profit, Weber does not provide any explanation for the escape, except blaming the mechanical foundations on which victorious capitalism rests!
Relations with different classes: While Weber was chiefly concerned with the ‘Capitalist’ class or class of Entrepreneurs in his analysis of Protestantism, Marx talked about the impact of Protestant reformation on society as a whole. He talks about how it impacted the upper echelons of society as well as what it meant for the unfortunate ones.
P.S. Friedrich Engels’s analysis of the relationship between development of capitalism and Protestant reformation are more systematic and rich as compared to that of his friend. If undertaken, his observations can become a subject matter of another essay.
 Giddens in Introduction to Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, pp. vii
 Ibid. xix
 Weber, pp. 48
 Weber, pp. 49
 Weber, pp. 125
 Parsons, p 505
 Singh, pp 162
 See, Beyond Pleasure: Cultures of Modern Asceticism by Evert Peeters, Leen Van Molle, Kaat Wils. (2011); Problems of Reflexivity and Dialectics in Sociological Inquiry by Barry Sandywell, David Silverman, Maurice Roche, Paul Filmer, Michael Phillipson. (2015); How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? By Neil Davidson. (2017); Marxism and Religion by David McLellan. (1987); Foundations of Classical Sociological Theory by Paramjit S. Judge (2012)
 Schumpeter, pp 11. The argument is made in the context of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
 Davidson, pp. 575
 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts 1844, pp. 113.
 Ibid. 112
 The German Ideology, pp 442
 Grundrisse, pp. 161
 A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, pp. 134
 Capital Vol. 1, pp 86
 Ibid. 417
 Ibid. 418
 Capital, Vol 1. Pp, 51
 Ibid. 52
 Ibid. 492
 Capital Vol.1, pp 511-12
 Weber, pp. 124
Judge, Paramjit S.2012. Foundations of Classical Sociological Theory. Pearson. Delhi.
Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich.2010. The German Ideology. People’s Publishing House. Delhi.
Marx, Karl. 1887. Capital Volume 1. Progress Publishers. Moscow
Marx, Karl. 1939. Grundrisse. Penguin Classics. London.
Marx, Karl. 2010. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Rahul Foundation. Lucknow.
Marx, Karl.1977. Economic and Philosophical Manuscript 1844. Progress Publishers. Moscow
Neil, Davidson. 2012. How Revolutionary where the Bourgeoisie Movements? Haymarket Books. Chicago.
Parsons, Talcott. 1949. The Structure of Social Action. New York.
Schumpeter, Joseph A. 2011. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. Adarsh Books. New Delhi
Weber, Max. 2012. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Routledge. New York.
Harsh Vardhan is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, India.
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One Response to ““Spirit of Protestantism”: Searching for Weberian Thesis in Marx”
Oof, well done, this essay should be nailed to every university door in Heidelberg.
In relation to the birth of capitalism, Piketty’s recent 2020 book has him explicitly showing in what sense Marx’s account of “primitive accumulation” is better in explaining initial capital accumulation than Weber’s cultural and religious factors and Braudel’s emphasis on the role of high finance. (Chapter 9 of Capital and Ideology, footnote at beginning of section on “Protectionism and Mercantilism”). Much recommended book.