Karl Marx and Max Weber both have strong sociological perspectives on the concept of class in capitalist society. Each theorist uses their own method to make inferences about the social world, and because of this, they come to very divergent conclusions. Marx and Weber both argue that an individual’s class position is predictive of the stratification and type of conflict that arise between classes within society. However their main point of contention exists in their definitions of class and to what extent the capitalist mode of production is the determining factor of an individual’s class position. Marx uses his materialist conception of history to provide the framework for his concepts. This method is defined by looking at changes in material conditions over time to explain larger social and economic shifts. Conversely, Weber uses Versheten or “sympathetic understanding” to outline his concepts. This method is defined by looking at individual subjective motives for actions and to use those to extrapolate causes for larger economic events.
According to Marx, class structure and conflict are intrinsic to capitalist society as, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Marx, 1848, pg. 246). Using his materialist theory of history, he demonstrates that the nature of all societies is shaped by their modes of production. Marx (1859) writes, “The economic conditions of existence of the three great classes into which modern bourgeois society is divided are analyzed under [capital, landed property, and wage labor].” Marx defines capitalist society through its own unique mode of production: production for the sake of accumulating capital, which is reinvested in further production. This is how he is able to differentiate between feudalism – where agriculture was the basis of economy and the land was the means of production – and capitalism.
Different from Marx, Weber implicitly treats society as the product of a degree of free will, and not objective structures. He rejects Marx’s implication that concealed social structures are the underlying cause of events, and argues that individual motives are the true cause. When theorizing about cause of rise of capitalism, he argued that it was individuals’ religious beliefs that shaped their social actions to save money and work hard and eventually molded society into a capitalist system. (Weber, 1905).
Marx and Weber also differ on how an individual’s class position emerges and what factors define it. In capitalist society, an individual’s relationship and degree of control over the mode of production is what determines their class position. (Marx, 1967, pg 10) This position is also largely predetermined. In other words, an individual is born into a family with a historically determined class role, and there is little mobility between classes. According to Marx, two main classes exist in capitalist society: the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. The Bourgeoisie is “the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labor”. (Marx, 1848, pg. 204). The Proletariat is “that class of modern wage laborers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labor power in order to live. (Marx, 1848, pg. 204) Weber disagrees with this and argues that the mode of distribution, rather than the mode of production, “monopolizes the opportunities for profitable deals for all those who, provided with goods, do not necessarily have to exchange them” (Weber, 927). He differentiates between those who have property and those who do not and uses those as “the basic categories for all class situations” (Weber, 927).
Marx argues that class conflict is inevitable in a capitalist society and “every form of society has been based…on the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes” (Marx, 1848, pg. 255). The relationship between the two classes is straightforward. The Proletariat and Bourgeoisie become necessary for each other’s existence. “The worker perishes if capital does not keep him busy. “Capital perishes if it does not exploit labor-power, which, in order to exploit, it must buy”(Marx, 1847, pg. 15) Due to the pressure to make profits in a capitalist society, “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation” (Marx, 1848, pg.248) of the Proletariat occurs at the hands of the Bourgeoisie. Exploitation occurs because the Proletariat is required work on terms set by the Bourgeoisie because they have no ownership of means of production and need the wages to support themselves. The bourgeoisie take advantage of this situation and get extra labor out of the workers, which allows them to make additional profit.
Capitalism put classes at odds with each other because one always benefits from the other’s weakness. Marx also argues that each class has a specific interest defined by its position in the productive system. The Bourgeoisie aims to increase the surplus profit it can get, and to exploit the workers more. The Proletariat aims for higher wages, and ultimately a revolution to change the class stratification. Thus, the two classes are always opposed to each other, “…in a word, oppressor and oppressed, [stand] in constant opposition to one another, [carry] on …a fight” (Marx, 1848, pg.246) due to their different interests. Conversely, since Weber defines class by access to goods, he argues that individuals in the same class will sometimes have to compete for those goods. He also rejects Marx’s argument that classes share similar interests because often classes are not aware of their unity and that class is comparative, in that an individual’s class position is only apparent when compared with others. Weber argues that social stratification does not occur solely due to economic class, but a combination between economic factors, or “market situation”(Weber, 1922, pg. 927), social factors, or “style of life” (Weber, 1922, pg .932), and political influence. Weber agrees with Marx about the oppressive nature of stratification, however instead of viewing stratification as the cause of class conflict, Weber argues it is also the consequence.
Conflict occurs when groups compete for higher economic, social and political wealth, and it is during that struggle when positions in the hierarchy emerge, based on who gains control of the state. This is why Weber focuses more on conflicts between groups of individuals, instead of structured oppositions. Marx defines class by an individual’s relationship to the modes of production in capitalist society. The exploitative nature of the dynamic between the Bourgeoisie and Proletariat and the differences in their interests leads to stratification and class conflict. He comes to these conclusions using his materialist conception of history. Weber defines class by an individual’s relationship to the modes of distribution in society, or their ability to acquire the things that they want. For Weber, class conflict arises between the haves and have-nots in society, and inherent competition exists between individuals for wealth, status and political prestige. He comes to his concludes using his Versheten.