The History of History 9: Max Weber and the Protestants!

Note: My professor reminded me that Max Weber’s writing, while reminiscent of modernization theory, was published before that theory was a thing. Still, here’s my raw take on reading “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”:

Before I read the Penguin Classics edition of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–05),[1] I pulled out my trusty Routledge edition and revisited Anthony Giddens’s 1976 essay on Weber.[2] Giddens provides a good review of Weber’s academic interests and brilliant idea to study the connection between capitalism and the self-denying culture of Protestantism. According to Giddens, Weber appears to reject Marxism’s belief that economics is the central driver of history, as well as the idea that the Reformation was an inevitable stage in economic development (Giddens, xviii). Instead, Weber wants to understand the historical contingencies and specific events that caused Protestant capitalism to arise (Giddens, xviii). When re-reading Weber’s book, I looked closely at the passages Giddens flagged, and I realized that Giddens’s observations are spot-on. Marxism relies on inevitable historical transitions — the slave revolting against slave owners, the serfs rebelling against feudal lords, the proles rebelling against the bourgeoisie. Conversely, Weber rejects “any notion that economic changes could have led to the Reformation as a ‘historically necessary development’” (Weber 2002, 36). Europe need not have had a Protestant Reformation to become capitalist; every society need not have a Reformation-type event to pave the way for capitalism. Now consider this quote in combination with Weber’s ending, where Weber says neither religion nor economics should be regarded as the sole driver of history (Weber 2002, 122). I agree with Giddens: Weber is thumbing his nose at Marx, who says economic production is the engine of history. From these quotes, we realize that Weber thinks each society evolves differently and history does not depend on universal inevitabilities.

Yet there is a wrinkle to Weber’s model of history. Weber believes that every society in the world has experienced or will experience some form of capitalism, even if it is devoid of Protestant elements (Weber 2002, 14–15). He believes that capitalism represents modernity and that the Protestants of Europe and America have succeeded at capitalism more than the Asians have. For these reasons, Weber reads like an early proponent of modernization theory, the school of thought that regards liberal-capitalist democracy as the height of human progress. By asserting that capitalism always manifests, modernization theorists believe in a kind of determinism — within systems and institutions, human agency matters less. So how do we square Weber’s belief in modernization theory with his claim that there is no single driver to history, or that a Protestant Reformation isn’t a necessary step to achieving capitalism? I think the key lies in Weber’s feeling that every society evolves differently. Yes, capitalism will always appear, but the way in which it appears — e.g., individualistic European Protestants, or Asian families working together for mutual benefit — will vary based on the circumstances of each country. The Protestant Reformation imbued Europe’s proto-capitalists with asceticism and self-denial, but a different event could have shaped European laborers in other ways. Weber has a bit of Karl Marx’s universal theorizing, but Weber allows for regional variations; according to Weber, there will not be an identical historical transition — the linchpin of Marxism — in every country.

Of course, Weber still thinks the West has gotten capitalism right to a greater degree than the East, which he regards as stuck in earlier stages of development. Weber expounds his Eurocentric assumptions in a dispassionate manner, like a doctor reading from a patient’s chart. He believes that Christianity’s theology, capitalism’s rationality and individuality, and Western arts’ intricacies are inherently better than what the East can offer. He means no ill will by these statements; he is just stating self-evident facts. Today, we read Weber’s gentlemanly Eurocentrism and realize that, for all his talk of regional variations and multiple factors driving history, Weber liked European variations the best. He reiterated the casual Western biases of his age. His assumption that Protestantism produced exceptionally disciplined laborers reflects a pro-Protestant bias. He disdains German Catholics, making the incredibly weak claim that he doesn’t see a lot of successful Catholic businessmen, hence there are none. Furthermore, Weber glosses over the successes of German Jews in his haste to celebrate Protestants. The fifth endnote to Chapter One (Weber 2002, 44) shows that, per 1,000 Germans, Jews were economically more successful than Protestants. However, Weber omits Jews from his main text, making it sound like Protestants really are the most successful businessmen in Germany.[3] We can therefore see Weber’s selectivity with his sources and the casual anti-Semitism affecting his work.

Anthony Giddens notes several flaws with Weber’s research: Weber is wrong to say Catholicism is unfriendly to entrepreneurism; he doesn’t have enough sources to pack up his ideas about the Puritans; the idea of one’s profession as a divine calling was not unique to Lutheranism; and Calvinism was not as pro-accumulation of wealth as Weber argues (Giddens, xxi–xxiv). To these flaws, I would add Weber’s assumptions about modernization always involving capitalism, as well as his anti-Asian, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic biases. Nonetheless, I think Weber’s big-picture argument captures something about the capitalist experience of early modern Europe and America. Calvinism’s belief in predestination — God has already picked who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell — created tremendous anxiety. Labor and success in business showed you were saved and assuage your fear of damnation. Such thinking lies at the root of the myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps; if you fail to succeed, there is something wrong with you. We can still see this sort of thinking in modern discourse that celebrates entrepreneurship and insults welfare recipients. Protestantism may not be cited explicitly, and other Protestant innovations like Methodism and the Baptist movement put the consideration of free will back into the popular consciousness, but the influence of Calvinist predestination still weighs upon our society. Weber was a genius to identify the connection between Calvinism and the punishing work ethic of Euro-American Protestants.

Aside from using Weber’s 1905 draft instead of the 1920 edit as its basis, the 2002 Penguin Classics edition goes beyond the Routledge to supply extra materials. Editors Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells give a much better explanation than Giddens of Weber’s family life and professional world, and they discuss how Talcott Parsons cultivated Weber’s reputation among American sociologists in the 1940s. According to Baehr and Wells, Weber felt that Lutheranism weakened Germany’s industrial spirit, so that Germany might fall behind the individualistic industrialism of America (Baehr, x–xi). Weber respected Americans because they “[put] obedience to God ahead of obedience to the state, freeing the individual of deference to traditional office and encouraging personal dynamism and initiative” (Baehr, xxi). This laudatory view suffuses Weber’s 1906 essay “Churches and Sects in America.” Weber visits the U.S., observes adult baptism and other forms of Christian life, and concludes that both churches (groups into which one is born) and sects (groups whose members self-select) strengthen American society. Aside from showing his adoration for American values, Weber’s trip reveals that he placed more stock in sociological fieldwork than, say, his contemporary Émile Durkheim, who wrote a book on the religion of Australian aborigines without visiting Australia. These contextual documents in the Penguin edition portray Weber as a skilled writer, stretching beyond the comforts of academia in his own country to understand life abroad.

The Penguin supplies a number of rebuttals Weber wrote against his critics, particularly H. Karl Fischer and Felix Rachfahl. These essays contain highly technical prose and are difficult to follow, since they refer to critical reviews that are not reprinted in the Penguin and thus can’t be referenced easily. I am reminded of Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels’s invective against the Young Hegelians in The German Ideology. When read in 2016, these texts reveal only one side of a specialized argument from a past era. Still, Weber’s back-and-forth with Fischer and Rachfahl serves as a reminder that Weber, like Marx, did not write in a vacuum, but rather was immersed in the intellectual debates of his time. Weber’s denunciations of his critics, especially Rachfahl, reveal a caustic wit that almost matches that of Marx & Engels, who derided the Hegelian philosopher Max Stirner as Saint Max and Sancho Panza. My favorite Weber insults are when he lambasts Rachfahl’s “really arrogant remarks” (Weber 2002, 258) and when he declares, “[Rachfahl] fails to admit that his superficial reading has led him to make crude errors” (Weber 2002, 282). Weber’s second critique of Rachfahl also contains a striking comment about Catholicism: Weber believes that the confessional booth lets Catholics assuage their guilt, whereas Protestants lack the confessional and have to find other ways, namely hard work and self-denial, to feel like they are saved (Weber 2002, 303–04). This comment feels as circumstantial as Weber’s other critiques of Catholicism, but it does shed light on Weber’s sincere belief that Protestantism, not Catholicism, was the most viable religion in the modern capitalist economy.

[1] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism, and Other Writings, edited, translated, and introduced by Peter Baehr & Gordon C. Wells (New York: Penguin Classics, 2002).

[2] Anthony Giddens, “Introduction” (1976), in Max Weber, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–05; London: Routledge, 2006), vii–xxiv.

[3] Weber downplays the achievements of the Jews in his introduction to the Collected Essays in the Sociology of Religion (1920): “Neither the great promoters and financiers nor … the typical bearers of financial and political capitalism, the Jews, created methods of rational labor organization. That was done by a quite different type (!) of people” (Weber 2002, 370).


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