Is Weber’s account of class inequality a more sophisticated version of Marx’s theory, or does it differ in its aims?

To begin this essay, I shall briefly give an outline of Marx’s theory of class inequality before I evaluate Weber’s account and decide whether or not it differs in its aims, my reasoning for this is largely due to the different and sometimes misleading ‘interpretations’ of their work, not to mention the wealth of information that has been written drawing heavily on their ideas of class. Following on from this I shall then decide which of the two theories I believe to be the most convincing account of class inequality. Marx stated in his work ‘The Communist Manifesto` (1962, See Bibliography) that: “Society as a whole is splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat”. Marx’s work developed great interest when it was realised it ran parallel with the theoretical debates in sociology which were then current. There is a common stream within both Marx and Weber’s work and this is recognised but there is a definite need to identify the differences that exist within the two theories. It is important to note that although within Marx’s work the idea of class is important, he does not give a precise definition of what class is (Crompton, 1993).

Within Karl Marx’s (1818–1883) work, there exists two main social groups, the first one is a ruling class (‘Bourgeoisie’), and the second one is a subject class (‘Proletariat’) — others (such as the Petit Bourgeoisie) are identified but will not be mentioned in this instance. The power that the bourgeoisie possesses takes its roots from its ownership and control of the means of production (property, capital, labour power and so on). Marx makes the argument that the bourgeoisie are exploiters and oppressors of the proletariat and, because of this, there is a definite conflict of interest between the two classes. The different establishments within society, in particular, the legislative and political orders, are means of bougeoise domination and are used specifically to promote its interests. For Marx, it is only when the means of production are communally owned will classes cease to exist which would bring to an end the exploitation and oppression endured by the proletariat at the hands of the bourgeosie.

According to Marx, methods of stratification arise from the connections of social groups to the means of production. Marx used the term class to indicate the main strata in all stratification systems. Using this theory, a class is a social group where all of its members have in common the same link to the means of production. For Marx, the connection that exists amongst the main social classes is one where its members have in common both dependence and conflict. This means that within both capitalist society, the bourgeoisie and proletariat are reliant on each other. Also, in this account, the wage labourers must sell their labour power in order to survive as they do not own a part of the means of production and they do not have the means to develop goods separately, which results in them being dependent for their living on the capitalists and the wages they offer them. The capitalists, being non-producers, are reliant on the labour power of wage labourers, because if they did not have it there would be no production at all.

Despite this, Marx argues that the common reliance of the two classes on each other is not a relationship that is given and received in an equal or balanced manner, rather, it is a relationship of exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed. In particular, the bourgeoisie profits at the cost of the proletariat leading to a clash of interest

between them. According to Marx, capital is privately owned by a minority, the capitalist class — this is attained from the exploitation of the body of the population, the working class. Marx stated that capital produces nothing, only labour produces wealth — but the wages that are paid to the workers for their labour fall far short of the worth of the goods they produce for the capitalist class. Because they are non-producers, the bourgeoisie are exploiting the proletariat, the real producers of wealth. It was Marx’s claim that in all class societies, the bourgeoisie exploits and oppresses the proletariat.

Marx believed that the class struggle was the active power of social change — even going so far as to make the argument that the history of all societies (up to the present) is the history of the class battle. Marx believed that the class struggle which would make drastic alterations within capitalist society would engage the chief contenders (meaning the bourgeoisie and the proletariat), a minority versus a majority — this would result in private property being replaced by property that is communally owned, in other words the fundamental contradictions kept in place within a capitalist economic system would lead to its destruction in time, with the proletariat overthrowing the bourgeoisie and taking over the means of production as the main source of power, resulting in a classless society. Also, industrial manufacture would stay as the fundamental system of production in the society which would replace capitalism.

Max Weber’s (1864–1920) work has been deemed to be one of the most influential improvements in stratification theory — Weber believed that social stratification results from a struggle for limited resources within society. Even though he saw this struggle as being mostly centred around economic resources, Weber believed that it can also embody struggles for prestige and political control — so, like Marx, Weber saw class mainly in economic terms. He argued that classes come about in market economies where individuals rival for economic advantage. He determined a class as a group of individuals who have in common an equivalent position in a market economy and as recipients of very similar economic rewards. According to Weber, an individuals ‘class situation’ basically comes down to their ‘market situation’ — those who share a similar class situation also share similar life chances, and their economic standing immediately affects their chances of gaining those items that are considered to be coveted in their society.

Again, like Marx, Weber argued that the dominant class separation is between those who own the forces of production and those who do not. This means that those who have considerable property assets will reap the biggest economic dividends and possess far greater life chances. On the other hand, Weber realised that there were fundamental variances in the market position of the propertyless bodies in society — to be more specific, the many wide-reaching abilities and services that are offered by different occupations have varying market values. In capitalist society, people who hold such positions as managers, administrators and professionals receive fairly large salaries because of the call that exists for their particular services. Weber identified these class groupings in capitalist society, but more importantly, this is not rigid, it is a recognised possibility that there could be more class groupings: 1) the propertied

upper class; 2) the propertyless white-collar workers; 3) the petty bourgeoisie; 4) the manual working class.

Moving on to how Marx and Weber differed in their accounts of class inequality, in his examination of class, Weber disagreed with Marx on many important issues. The main difference between the two theories is that Marx believed class relations to have their roots in exploitation and domination within production relations — production is more central to Marx because of its ‘salience’ for the problem of exploitation (Wright, 1997), while Weber saw class positions as reflecting the differences in life chances in the market, they also write from a different historical perspective — Marx being a historical materialist and Weber in writing a pluralistic account. Following on in more detail from weber’s focus on the market, an issue that illustrates this is that there are other factors instead of the ownership or nonownership of property that have significance in the ordering of classes — more specifically, the market value of the abilities of the propertyless does vary and the differences that result from this with regard to economic return are enough to produce different social classes.

Another issue highlighted by Weber was that he saw no evidence to maintain the idea of the polarisation of classes and even though he observed some descent in the amount of the petit bourgeoisie (the small property owners) because of rivalry from large companies, Weber made the argument that they join white-collar or skilled manual employment instead of being lowered into the status of unskilled manual workers. An important point for Weber was that the white-collar ‘middle class’ swells instead of contracting as capitalism evolves — Weber asserted that capitalist ventures and the modern-day nation state need a ‘rational’ bureaucratic rule that comprises of large amounts of officials and clerical staff. Finally, Weber saw a diversification of classes and an enlargement of the white-collar middle class, instead of a polarisation. Weber’s next point of disagreement with Marx involved the rejection of the view that was held by some Marxists, of the unavoidability of the proletarian revolution — Weber did not see a reason why those who had a similar class position would develop a common identity, recognise their shared interests and take collective action to further such interests, transforming capitalism. Weber accepted that a common market position could possibly provide a foundation for collective class action but he saw this only as a possibility, and nothing more than that, he did acknowledge that class conflict is a major phenomenon in capitalist society. Finally, Weber dismissed the Marxist idea that political power takes from economic power — it was his argument that class forms but one feasible foundation for power and that the distribution of power in society is not always connected to the distribution of class inequalities.

While class forms one likely foundation for group gathering, collective action and the attainment of political power, Weber stated that there are other foundations for these exercises. Specifically, groups form because their members share a similar status situation. Whereas on the other hand, class makes reference to the unequal distribution of ‘social honour’. Occupations, ethnic and religious groups, and more significantly, lifestyles, are given varying levels of prestige or esteem by members of society — a status group comprises of those persons who are given a similar level of social honour and as a result of this have in common the same status situation. For

Weber, unlike classes, those who are members of status groups are nearly always aware of their common status situation.

A way of understanding and appreciating both Marx and Weber’s relevance and to demonstrate how their well-grounded and established theories have furthered discussion of class inequality is to show how many later theorists derived their ideas of class structure from them. This is also a method I intend to use to aid my answer to the question being posed in showing which theorist is considered to be the most useful in debates focusing on issues surrounding social class. E.O.Wright (1978, 1985), developed a theory that can be attributed to Marx even though it takes some of its ideas from Weber too, his work is often seen to be one of the more ‘sustained’ of a number of different attempts by Marxist theorists (Crompton, 1993). In Wright’s theoretical approach there are three levels of control over economic resources in modern capitalist production, using these it is possible to identify the main classes that exist. The three levels are, firstly — control over investments or money capital, secondly — control over the physical means of production and, thirdly — control over labour power. People who are members of the capitalist class have control over each of Wright’s levels inside the production system. If the person is a member of the working class there is no control over any of them. Other than these two main classes there is another one in between them where the person’s situation is of a more indefinite nature. Wright describes this situation as ‘contradictory class locations’, this is because they are able to influence some parts of production but do not have control over some of the others. The ‘contradictory’ class position is called this by Wright because these people are not capitalists or manual workers but they share certain common features with both of them (Giddens, 1993).

F.Parkin (1971, 1979), follows the Weberian approach more than the Marxist way. The ownership of property (the means of production) is the main factor in social class. Property is only one form of social closure. Social closure can be defined as any process where groups try to maintain exclusive control over resources which limits others access to them. Ethnic origin, language and religion could be used to create social closure, there are two types involved: exclusion and usurpation. J.Goldthorpe’s approach to class is from a Weberian perspective but it focuses on using ideas practically. His scheme was the basis for the Oxford mobility Study. Goldthorpe identified seven classes that were said to combine occupational categories (these included their sources, levels of income, economic security, chances of advancement) with their location inside systems of authority and control which governs the process of production they are engaged in, their ability in self-governing their work-tasks and their roles (Haralambos & Holborn, 1995).

Lockwood has developed a neo-weberian approach where there is not much of a problem with where to put the middle classes, using the market-orientated Weberian theory of class classification because skill differences like property, shape life chances in the market and produce a varied amount of ‘class situations’. Poulantzas argued that the bourgeoisie may be ‘unambiguously’ identified as those who own the material means of production, but besides legal ownership, he also identified the significance of ‘possession’ — “the capacity to put the means of production into operation” (1975: 19; as cited in Crompton, 1993).

Wright, as a committed Marxist, has a very strong and respected theory of class relations and believes it to be the most theoretically coherent while having the capacity to illuminate empirical problems (Wright, 1997), while Parkin, as a user of Weberian concepts, has had an influence with reference to analysis of the behaviour of particular categories and occupational groups, but he has not been much help in the analysis of the occupational class structure as a whole. Goldthorpe’s theory, although extremely influential, has very little (if anything) in the way of evidence to support his claims, which could be argued, weakens it greatly. Looking at these theories it would seem that the most plausible ones (and perhaps the strongest) are ones that base their foundations in Marx’s idea of class. This leaves Weber in the position of providing what is missing in Marx (or perhaps in conjunction with), but not being used as an accurate theory of class inequality alone.

In drawing to my conclusion, both Marx and Weber’s theoretical accounts of class inequality have given a large degree of insight into social class and have aided the currently practised systems of allocation of persons, occupations or social categories within certain class schemes (Crompton, 1993). Weber’s account of class inequality is not a more sophisticated version of Marx’s theory, it is just a different method of tackling the issues surrounding class inequality and it remains a valid one. Marx and Weber were similar in the sense that they both perceived social classes as groups that are formed and structured out of economic relationships, they also believed classes to be influential social ‘actors’ in the context of capitalist industrialism (Crompton, 1993). With this in mind, however, Marx and Weber have some very fundamental differences, as detailed above, that cannot be reconciled, largely due to Weber’s ideas of logical and methodological separation of fact and value, while Marx’s philosophy of praxis widens the gulf between the two theorists (Marshall et al., 1988) — this makes a comparison between the two theorists problematic and difficult, but still a useful one. Weber has more value in the sense that his methods of identifying class inequality are still very valid, but Marx’s writing on class is generally a much stronger and more accurate theory — Weber’s placing of importance on distribution and the connected issue of the market is only partly an account of the class structure of capitalist society and has a tendency to mislead (Crompton and Gubbay; as cited in Marshall et al., 1988). Marx’s account in linking the structure of class in relation to production seems far more favourable, although it is not possible to dismiss Weber’s usefulness in this field. A much better idea, it would seem, would be not to synthesise the two accounts of class inequality, that is not an option because of the fundamental differences between Marx and Weber — a better idea would be to take the elements most relevant from both theories and apply or reject them accordingly to make a theory that incorporates the best of both (Abercrombie and Urry as cited in Marshall et al., 1988).


Allin Cottrell, Social Classes in Marxist Theory, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1984.

R.Crompton, Class and Stratification, Polity Press, Cambs., 1993.

A.Giddens, The Class Structure of The Advanced Societies, Hutchinson, London, 1973.

A.Giddens, Sociology (Second Edition), Polity Press, 1993.

Haralambos and Holborn, Sociology Themes and Perspectives (Fourth Edition), Collins Educational, 1995.

(Ed) P.Joyce, Class, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995.

Marshall et al., Social Class in Modern Britain, Hutchinson, London, 1988.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Phoenix, London, 1996.

F.Parkin, Class Inequality and Political Order, MacGibbon & Kee, London, 1971.

N.Poulantzas, Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, NLB Pubs., London, 1975.

Max Weber, ‘Class, status, Party’ in Economy and Society (Vol II), Bedminster Press, New York, 1968.

E.O.Wright, Classes, Verso, London, 1985.

E.O.Wright, Class Counts, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997.

About Post Author

Leave a Reply

Join my mailing list

Subscribe to my mailing list and never miss an update again!