Against the Weber Thesis

Diarmaid MacCulloch
Friday, September 1st 2017
Sep/Oct 2017

Max Weber, a nineteenth-century German sociologist of genius, put forward a theory that still remains influential, particularly among those who are not historians. In a classic work first published in 1904, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,1 he suggested that there was a causal link between these two phenomena, more particularly between Calvinist Protestantism and modern capitalism—thus adroitly standing on its head the contention of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels that Protestant ideology was the superstructure of change in economy and society. Weber’s work shaped the English Christian socialist R. H. Tawney’s equally influential book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926). Tawney, who had more refined historical instincts than Weber, both widened and restricted the argument. He pointed out that an urge to accumulate capital and monopolize the means of production can be found in many cultures and civilizations, but he also contended that this instinct found a particular partner in “certain aspects of later Puritanism”: individual self-discipline, frugality, and self-denial.2 From vague memories of these two authorities combined comes that still frequently heard cliché, the “Protestant work ethic.”

The Weber-Tawney thesis still has defenders, and much in the Reformed Protestant ethos might make it seem plausible. Plenty of Reformed Protestants exemplified the traditional image of disciplined, self-reliant people, with a powerful sense of their elect status, ready to defend their right to make decisions for themselves. Nevertheless, it is missing the larger picture simply to find the Weber-Tawney thesis proved in particular historical situations, like late nineteenth-century southern Germany and Switzerland, the setting for Weber’s own observations of contrasting Catholic and Protestant economic and social behavior. Tawney was, of course, right in seeing a wider canvas. He would have been further vindicated had he seen the explosion of emphatically non-Christian Indian, Pakistani, and East Asian entrepreneurial energy in the late twentieth century. Above all are major questions of cause and effect. Protestant England and the Protestant Netherlands undoubtedly both became major economic powers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—pioneers in economic production, and virtuosi in commerce and the creation of capital and finance systems—while formerly entrepreneurial Catholic Italy stagnated. Why?

Any simple link between religion and capitalism founders on objections and counter-examples. Rather than taking its roots from religion, this new wealth and power represents a shift from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, which has political roots: particularly the disruption caused by the Italian wars from the 1490s and the long-term rise of the Ottoman Empire, which brought terrible social and economic blight to Mediterranean Christian coastal regions. Striking counter-examples would be the economic backwardness of Reformed Protestant Scotland or Transylvania. That suggests that prosperity in England and the Netherlands arose precisely because they were not well-regulated Calvinist societies, but from the mid-seventeenth century had reluctantly entrenched religious pluralism alongside a privileged church. Just as in the case of Judaism in medieval Europe, tolerated but disadvantaged minorities such as Protestant Dissenters in Stuart England found the best way to the social advancement available to them. Excluded from political power, ecclesiastical office, or the law, they turned to commerce and manufacture. French Huguenots and eighteenth-century English Methodists (who were emphatically not Calvinists) followed their example.

One powerful objection to the notion of a structural or causal link between Reformed Protestantism and capitalism comes from the very dubious further linkage often made between Protestantism generally and individualism. Individualism, the denial or betrayal of community, is after all seen as one of the basic components of the capitalist ethos. It is very frequently suggested that medieval Catholicism was somehow more communitarian and collective-minded than its successor, Protestantism, which was a dissolvent of community and promoted the sort of individualism embodied in that apocryphal cry of Luther, “Here I stand; I can do no other.” Yet Calvinism is a Eucharist-centered and therefore community-minded faith. Its discipline at its most developed was designed to protect the Eucharist from devilish corruption, and the resulting societies formed one of the most powerful and integrated expressions of community ever seen in Europe. Certainly Protestants disrupted some forms of community, the structures created by medieval Catholicism, but they did so precisely because they considered them harmful to the community, just like witches or sacred images. They then rebuilt those communities and did so most successfully where Reformed Protestantism was at its most effective and thoroughgoing: Scotland, Hungary, and New England. Such places were not at the forefront of the birth either of modern individualism or of modern capitalism. In the United States, it is not Congregationalist Salem or Boston that are the best symbols of modern capitalist enterprise, despite their once-flourishing ocean-going trading fleets; it is the determined and foundational pluralism of New York or Pennsylvania’s Pittsburgh. The “Spirit of Capitalism” debate shows how sensitive we should be in placing theology in its context before putting together cause and effect. Reformations and counterreformations always interacted with and were modified by other aspects of the peoples and the societies in which they operated. Equally, we should never forget that theology is an independent variable, capable in the Reformation of generating huge transformations in society, modes of behavior, even the very shape of the ritual year.

Diarmaid MacCulloch is professor of the history of the church at St. Cross College, University of Oxford.

  1. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2001).
  2. R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (London: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1926), 226–27.
Friday, September 1st 2017

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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