Analyses of Modernity: Marx, Weber, and Durkheim



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Analyses of Modernity: Marx, Weber, and Durkheim


This paper seeks to compare the three analyses of modernity by Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim. It highlights the similarities and differences between the theories. For the sake of this paper, it focuses only on those aspects of their analyses that either converge or diverge since all three authors have written on the issue extensively. The analysis is done by researching the primary texts of the three authors and deriving information from their works. All three sociologists look at modernity through connection with capitalism; therefore, this paper studies in detail how mass production, which is a key characteristic of capitalism, interacts with societal relations.

Furthermore, in light of the aforementioned discussion, this paper also argues why Max Weber’s analysis is the most convincing out of the three points of view.

Max Weber’s Analysis

Modernity is a rather complex subject, which cannot be defined, as easily as one might hope. Perhaps, the reason behind it is the fact that the three forefathers of modernity have spent a lot of time and effort to describe it. Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber describe the modern state of affairs in the world in their unique ways, and each of their efforts has been highly appraised and acclaimed. At first glance, all three authors seem to have different points on the issue; however, their thoughts contain numerous similarities, as well as differences.

When it comes to analyzing Marx’s opinion on modernity, there are little or even no grey areas. The founder of capitalism derives his theory of modernity through an exposition of capitalism. Capitalism, in essence, is merely a method of increasing profit and the bourgeoisie strive to achieve it by any means possible. Unlike machinery, a working man’s labor cannot be measured empirically; therefore, it is susceptible to exploitation. According to Karl Marx, it is the reason why capitalism is unfair to the proletariat.

Furthermore, he explains that the value of the laborer himself depends on technology and mass production. Marx asserts, “… the social character of labor appears to us to be an objective character of the products themselves” (322). This objectification of the societal (labor) due to technological (new means of production) is what defines capitalism and hence, modernity for Karl Marx. His theory boils down to the fact that social relations are manipulated in capitalism so that they become exploitative towards the laborer (without many realizations from the society) and, eventually, creates deep cleavages amongst classes.

Max Weber’s analysis of modernity is slightly different from Marx’s theory since he employs a political rather than economic approach towards it. Weber says, “The bureaucratic state order is especially important; in its most rational development, it is precisely characteristic of the modern state” (1991, p. 82). Just as modernity manifested itself in capitalism for Marx, a rational bureaucratic organization is the essence of modernity, for Weber.

Furthermore, he explains how a set of regulations can dictate the process of rationalization for individuals. Weber says that this rationalization, which is embedded into the system through a bureaucratic organization, finally renders individual rationality useless. This fact, in essence, dehumanizes the whole idea of rationality since it is no longer emerging from the thought process of a given individual, but rather from collective actions.

This idea of dehumanization is very similar to Marx’s explanation of a capitalist society. For Weber, dehumanization occurs due to a disconnect between rationality and an individual whereas, according to Marx, it occurs as a laborer’s work is only showed through an objective commodity. Both Weber and Marx, therefore, are pointing to a “modern” system, which is not merely a sum of people but is a thing in itself. In doing so, they both strongly recognize the “inherently” exploitative nature of modernity.

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Morality and Society by Emilie Durkheim

Emile Durkheim, like Marx and Weber, agrees with the fact that capitalism adversely affects society. In his book Morality and Society, Durkheim says “… this crass commercialism, which reduces society to nothing more than a vast apparatus of production…” (1973, p. 44). This thought is very similar to the idea of dehumanization mentioned above; hence, it is a common issue for Durkheim, Marx, and Weber. This assertion means that mass production is the thing that binds people together in a modern state. Durkheim thinks that, as the society is becoming capitalist, it is losing that collective sentiment, which used to be derived from religion or tradition in the old times.

The only binding factor between individuals, which remains is “interest” and Durkheim claims that interest-only creates “transient relations” (1973, 90). From the recognition of a lack of moral order, one can also see that Durkheim identifies with alienation as another characteristic of modernity. Because of the created moral vacuum, a person’s interests will frequently come in collision with another person’s interests, and will often conflict with state affairs. Any given individual’s interest, hence, is alienated from the collective consciousness.

The Division of Labor in Society by Durkheim

In his book The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim states, “state is too remote” from its citizens; therefore, “they inevitably lose contact, become detached, and the society disintegrates” (1947). In many ways, this idea is similar to Marx’s and Weber’s thoughts; on the other hand, one can see a difference in approaches. Weber would argue that the disintegration occurs due to the alienation caused by rules and regulations whereas Durkheim would call the lack of a cult mentality the culprit. The two sociologists are still somewhat overlapping in this particular idea. Marx, however, would state that the forces of production cause alienation, as well as the disintegration of society. He thinks that the cleavages between classes would occur as a direct consequence of capitalism and not because the collective consciousness has been threatened.

This argument shows that all three thinkers, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, find the root cause of societal disintegration to be very similar. On the other hand, the issues of how it is manifested in a society, how the society reacts to it, and how it can be dealt with are different in all three analyses. This argument becomes a point of departure for further differences between the three theories.

Marx, Weber, and Durkheim Theories Comparison

The greatest antagonistic aspect between Marx and Durkheim evolves because the binding factor that Durkheim deems to be necessary is incomprehensible to Marx. Since the way a capitalist society is unnatural, Marx would see any binding factor prevalent in a capitalist society as a way of making the masses believe that the system is correct when it is not. Durkheim finds the division of labor “organic”; therefore, the way that the division of labor occurs in a capitalist society is somewhat natural and one’s profession is determined by the area of expertise; therefore, it introduces logic to the system. What is being lost is the moral compass within society; hence, a restoration of that is the solution. This aspect is somewhat similar to Weber’s analysis, but far from Karl Marx’s suggestion.

Furthermore, from the Marxist point of view, the only “fix” to the exploitation of labor due to capitalism is the proletariat’s decision to revolt against the bourgeoisie. Marx’s theory of communism is centered on the idea that lower classes will mobilize and carry out a socialist revolution, which will eventually evolve into a capitalism-free society – communism. To Marx, it is the natural course of events, which will occur to restore balance. On the other hand, Weber would argue that the key to this problem is a better understanding of social relations.

Weber (1991) says that the right politician is ethical. He states, “… an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility are not absolute contrasts, but rather supplements which only in unison constitute a genuine man – a man who can have the 'calling for politics’” (Weber, 1991, p. 127). He also says that is not “spiritually dead” is necessary for the masses to succeed, as well (Weber, 1991, p.127). In saying this, Weber realizes the need for ethical grooming in society and does not suggest the eradication of capitalism. This idea has much to do with the fact that as much as Weber calls the bureaucratic organization into question, he realizes its efficiency and importance in order maintaining. This approach is radically different from that of Karl Marx.

Since the three analyses diverge at varying points, it would be best to pick out the strongest analysis by firstly applying the process of elimination. Karl Marx’s divergence from Durkheim and Weber is most strongly embedded in how he perceives the consequences of modernity. Capitalism is not natural to Marx; hence, the way for society to move forward (out of this kind of modernity) is by abandoning it entirely. The argument of capitalism versus communism then becomes plain.

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There is no middle ground and socialism is just a step away from communism, it is not an evolved system, which Marx thinks will form in the future. Weber and Durkheim give suggestions that are “in-between” rather than radical; therefore, they address the social complexities due to capitalism – an aspect, to which Karl Marx does not give as much importance since the end goal is a revolution. Therefore, from this point of view, the paper takes a closer look at the differences between Weber and Durkheim to see which one is the most convincing.

Emile Durkheim focuses on functionality to explain societal relations. Durkheim talks about organic solidarity in his book The Divisions of Labor in Society, as well as in Morality and Society. Through this perspective, he explains that every man has a function in society; hence, people are dependent on each other for the work that they do. This assertion comes in contradiction with Durkheim’s opinion on the need for a stronger binding factor, such as tradition or religion. On one hand, Durkheim sees modern society as organic as opposed to a mechanical one while, on the other hand, he says that society becomes nothing more than a source of mass production.

The most problematic aspect of Durkheim’s analysis of modernity is his treatment of religion. He sees it as a coercive force but does not say that the pre-modern eras used to be better as they shared strong traditional values. Within the capitalist framework, he suggests that people must look out for others in the society, perform the tasks given to them and “receive the just award for our services” (Durkheim, 1973, p. 144). Rules that are “just” will not limit people in any realm of rationalization, but, will make them “free” (Durkheim, 1973, p. 144).

There is almost no suggestion as to how these rules are to be implemented and what might be in the first place. Durkheim tries to see the societal and technological relations, not as antagonistic to each other notions, but rather as complementary ones. Although this frame of thought is not implausible, it does give root to ample contradictions within Durkheim’s theory.

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Max Weber looks at societal relations just as much Durkheim does, in fact, even more so. He talks about the esthetic, the religious, economic, as well as political issues in detail and ties them with each other. Weber uses case studies to exhibit what his theories are saying. China, France, Germany, and the United States are some of the countries that Weber uses as examples. Weber (1991, p. 220) states that there are reasons behind bureaucratic rules and hence they are seldom argued against. A bureaucratic organization helps in the “rational” creation of “societal action” (Weber, 1991, p. 228).

Weber (1991, p. 228) says that such a system is “superior” to any other form of “communal action.” This opinion is antagonistic to Marx’s ideas of class struggles. Weber states that it is in the interest of everyone that this system functions successfully; therefore, it will help it prevail (1991, p. 229). What one can see in Weber’s idea is a more accommodative perspective on modernity. Moreover, what is most important is the way Weber is approaching the matter. His works show that he is interested in the way social interactions occur and how they could be manipulated. His thorough explanations about the interactions between religion, politics, and economics give a comprehensive understanding of human behavior.


Through the process of elimination and by studying Weber’s analysis independently, this paper concludes that Marx Weber’s analysis of modernity is the most convincing out of the three theories. The significance that Weber gives to human behavior not only provides reasonable insight into the way social relations are manipulated due to technology but also describes situations in which they can coexist.

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