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Book Review: “Max Weber: A Skeleton Key” On Sunday August 14th

Max Weber

Max Weber

This is another small book by Randall Collins, one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century, though he’s virtually unheard of outside Sociology.

Weber is known primarily for Capitalism and the Protestant Ethic, the thesis that Christian ideas and practice, and especially Protestant ideas, led to capitalism.

But the Protestant Ethic was only a small part of Weber’s huge output, and in other places he treats other parts of the equation, including raw power and material circumstances, at length.

This survey book deals with Weber as an idealist, but also with his overall theory of the conditions required for industrialization, his writings on power in general, and his wider religious writings, which included an analysis of religion in ancient Egypt, China, and Judaism. It also deals with his theme of rationalization (bureaucratization), which some take as his actual master thesis.

You will get more from this book than any other I am reviewing this year, save perhaps Collins other small book on “non-obvious sociology.”

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  1. For some reason, I have managed to read Weber’s “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” three different times. I have long been fascinated by the links between industrialization and Protestantism and somehow I figured that if I read Weber again, he would get it right.

    His first major blunder is that he doesn’t make any distinctions between industrial capitalism and finance capitalism. While it helps (a lot) to be a Protestant if you wish to start an industrial revolution, you can be utterly technologically illiterate and still dabble in finance capitalism.

    Second, he seems to think that the Protestants couldn’t get their industrial act together until they embraced Calvinist principles. Oddly enough, he keeps using Ben Franklin as the prototypical Puritan / Calvinist entrepreneur. But while Franklin did indeed grow up in Puritan Boston, he got out of town as quickly as he could and moved to Quaker Philadelphia where he truly blossomed. Pretty difficult to discuss the Industrial Revolution without the Quakers but Weber manages to try.

    Third, Weber seems to think that the most hopeless of the Protestants were the Lutherans and yet, the Lutheran lands became highly industrially successful. Sweden with only 10 million people, has full-spectrum industrial skills from cars, machine tools and specialty steels to pharmaceuticals and cell phone infrastructure with plenty of ships, busses and rolling rail stock in between.

    Weber should be applauded, I think, for at least looking at the link between Protestant culture and industrialization. Too bad he didn’t get much right.

  2. Ian Welsh

    The key is stop reading the Protestant Ethic and start reading the other stuff he wrote. “General Economic Theory” is a good place to start.

    I do think the sacralization of everyday life is a factor in the rise of capitalism and there are other places where religion made a difference: accurate clocks were developed for monasteries so they could do ceremonies/pray at just the right time, for example.

    Monasteries were also proto-capitalist institutions themselves, in many cases, working vast amounts of land being very productive.

    Collins is pretty good on this in “Weberian Sociological Theory” if you prefer a seconary source (not a bad idea, actually, Weber treats related issues in different places because he’s working things thru, Collins lumps them together.)

  3. Jonathan

    I HAVE read Weber’s “General Economic Theory.” Same problems as with the Protestant Ethic—too little understanding of industrialization combined with a seeming unwillingness to do his homework. I stopped reading Weber after that.

  4. Ian Welsh

    This is odd, because, in fact, Weber does make a significant distinction, for example, between speculative capitalism and rational consumer capitalism. It’s one of the main axes of his overall argument.

    As for Lutheran Sweden, well, that’s a looking back at information Weber didn’t have because it hadn’t happened yet. Sweden industrialized fast, but later than many other nations. (

    aka. Sweden was not a leading industrializer. Other areas industrialized first.

    Weber was looking at what cause capitalism and industrialization to happen in Britain in specific and Europe in general. As a rule Industrialization did happen first in Protestant countries, so one must ask why? Was it just a coincidence?

    Why did it happen where and when it happened is not a question about the future, it is a question about the past. Why no China being the more specific form of the question.

    I think the Protestant Ethic is weak, myself, but Sweden is not a countervailing argument. The Protestant Ethic is about one thread of what was required to CHANGE from a traditional economy to an industrial, rational capitalist one. Once that change had occurred, Protestantism was no longer necessary.

  5. Ghostwheel

    When I first saw that face, I thought it was John Hurt!

    I guess we know who’ll be playing Max Weber when they make his books into a movie. 🙂

  6. XFR

    I guess we know who’ll be playing Max Weber when they make his books into a movie.

    They did. It was called The Matrix.

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