The History of History 10: More Words about Weber and Protestants

This week, we began class by returning to Albert Soboul’s essay “Classes and Class Struggles During the French Revolution.” Using Marx’s framework of historical transitions, Soboul writes about the French transition from feudalism to capitalism. At the start of the revolution (1789–92), guilds were banned and land was divided up, allowing for smaller landowners. In the next phase (1792–94), the radical Jacobins seized power and instituted radical changes like price controls, full employment, and universal male suffrage. The Jacobins were ideological fanatics — a throwback to medieval ideological purity, according to Prof. Lenoe — and they didn’t own large factories, as the nineteenth-century capitalists did in ensuing decades. Even so, the Jacobins comprised a bourgeois ruling class full of artisans and intellectuals, so that the Jacobin elite was distinct from the old feudal lords. Once the Jacobins collapsed, Napoleon became emperor, creating a new monarchy to succeed the old Bourbon kings. Bonaparte represented the full seizure of power by the bourgeoisie. A new elite of wealthy landowners and merchants, with Napoleon at the top as bourgeois emperor, controlled society. The Napoleonic regime limited the redistribution of land, consolidating property under the wealthiest French. In a Marxist reading, these bourgeois elites owned the means of production; as Soboul writes, “The bourgeoisie that profited from the Revolution was no longer the same as the bourgeoisie that started it” (257). Soboul acknowledges that Marx’s rigid model doesn’t work perfectly; within the Jacobins and the sans culottes, there were both bourgeois and proletarian characteristics. Still, Soboul thinks Marx got enough right for the arc of communist history to be true.

Soboul was one of the many Marxist scholars who functioned in Western academia despite the Cold War. They accepted the Marxist historical metanarrative, with its inevitable transitions, narrative of ruling classes eliminating each other until workers seize power, and materialist understanding of economics. In contrast, Max Weber the sociologist birthed a different school of thought. Weber takes a cultural view of history in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, arguing that religion played a major role in shaping the modern world. He doesn’t say religion is the only factor affecting modernity, but he thinks the intangible aspects of culture matter as much as the physical means of production. The Weberian model allows for historical variations in a way that Marxism’s grand march toward communism does not. At the same time, Weber hints toward a new grand narrative of history, modernization theory, which assumes that liberal capitalism will be the highpoint of modernity. How each country gets to capitalism will vary, but they’ll all get there eventually. Looking over the texts from the last few weeks, we can see how major thinkers have interpreted history in unilinear ways and proposed endpoints for human development — the realization of Hegel’s geist, the Anglo-American democracy of James Hosmer, the communist utopia of Marx & Engels, or the omnipresence of Weber’s liberal (Protestant!) capitalism.

We spent a large portion of class discussing the effects of Protestant theology upon capitalism, as well as the psychology of Catholicism versus Protestantism. While Weber’s full views on theology are spread thinly through his text, footnotes, and other essays, the gist of Weber’s thinking is that the confessional booth provides Catholics with peace of mind. If you repent in the confessional and mean it, your quotient of divine grace is replenished. Additionally, Catholics believe they imbibe the body and blood of Jesus Christ on a weekly basis through the sacrament of communion. Martin Luther did away with many of the Catholic sacraments, but he retained communion and said that people could self-confess through their interior dialogue with God. In contrast, Weber shows that the strict Calvinists of the early modern period lacked a psychological release like the confessional or the act of communion. You had no way to know if you were saved or damned; there was no psychological safety valve equivalent to the High-Church sacraments. All you could do was work and hope that you would be successful, revealing your salvation. Following this line of inquiry, Weber positions the Calvinists and their descendants as industrious laborers, whereas Catholics and the Lutherans with their existential escape mechanisms are less industrious. Perhaps this was why Weber believed Lutheranism was weakening German society, as the editors of the Penguin volume argue: The Lutherans did not have the same incentive to work as the Calvinists did.

I ended my last response essay by noting that Weber regarded capitalism as the epitome of rational, contemporary civilization. In class, Prof. Lenoe made some remarks that complicated this reading of Weber. At the end of Protestant Ethic, Weber notes that modern capitalism, forged by Protestant morals, is like an iron cage from which people cannot escape. Weber also exhibits some disdain for the Puritans and Pietists who were so disciplined and monkish in their behavior that they withdrew from society and lived in isolation. It therefore appears that Weber harbored pessimism about capitalism and its emphasis on continual acquisition. Furthermore, Prof. Lenoe explained that Weber believed capitalism in Europe was becoming increasingly secular, a point that I had missed when reading the book. The work ethic was outlasting its Protestant origins. Yet Weber writes with glowing respect for American capitalists, who were more religious than their European peers. Weber’s 1906 essay on U.S. churches and sects exalts the American businessmen who inquire as to their colleagues’ religion before entering into contracts. Similarly, Weber in Protestant Ethic celebrates the writings of Benjamin Franklin, who regarded the disciplined acquisition of wealth as a utilitarian good, benefitting the whole community. Extended quotes from Franklin supply much of Weber’s evidence for the influence of the Protestant work ethic upon capitalism. Weber the German sociologist reads like a firm believer in American exceptionalism.

As I see it, Weber’s zeal for the labor of American Protestants has two implications for understanding Protestant Ethic. First, Weber wants Protestantism to remain intertwined with capitalism in the twentieth century. He acknowledges Europe’s growing secularization, he thinks Lutheranism has not been the best influence upon Germany, and he recognizes that the demanding spirit of capitalism — working for work’s sake, as if the acquisition of money is a civic virtue — can feel like a mental prison. These problems do not stop Weber from lauding the fused religious and capitalist discourses of America; hence, he wants the relationship between Protestantism and labor to endure. Second, Weber’s pessimism about capitalism is outweighed by his optimism about the Calvinist work ethic and its achievements in the Western world. When Weber celebrates Western economics and society, and disdains similar achievements in the East, he reveals his cultural bias toward the Protestant, Euro-American world. Despite his misgivings about some aspects of capitalism, Weber sees the capitalist West as the best of all possible worlds (to borrow a phrase from Voltaire). Weber’s sociology contains mixed emotions regarding capitalist modernity, but those emotions skew toward the positive.

Cover Image:
“File:Poznanski rekl.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, file uploaded by “Mzopw” [pseud.], file uploaded November 28, 2004, image in the public domain, accessed October 23, 2016,


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