I am writing an essay on "Marx and Weber, the comparisons and contrasts relating to class and stratification. (writes George)

Hi George,

Sorry to have taken so long to get back to you -- the day job keeps me busy. I'm glad someone still gets people to read Weber -- I've had lots of requests for help comparing Marx and functionalism!!. In general, books which discuss this well is Giddens ('Sociology') or Ritzer. There are also several good sociology sites like Sociosite (on my external links page).

I am a bit rusty on this myself, but I can outline the basics. Hope it helps.

Marx's work on social class can be developed from my file on Marx on surplus value. The systematic and structured exploitation of labour power in capitalism generates two fundamental classes (bourgeoisie and proletariat).One owns the means of production, while the other owns nothing but labour. Since they differ about who has the right to the surplus value that is generated in capitalist production, there is an in-built class struggle between them.The bourgeoisie enlist the aid of political, religious, educational and other ideological systems to persuade, fool, cajole and bluff the proletariat into accepting that the system is 'good' , 'natural', the result of 'evolution' etc.

OK so that's the usual model found in Marxism, and Weber is usually brought in to explain more of the complexity of actual stratification systems, which typically do not take on this polarised fundamental form. Weber agrees that there are classes in capitalism, but sees them as arising whenever any one group tries to gain an advantage in a (labour) market. These markets are  dominated by the stronger groups who therefore gain more income, wealth and 'life chances'. Clearly, there needs be more than one market (e.g. markets for unskilled AND for skilled labour, different regional markets in towns and cities and so on) and more than one way to dominate it (collective force as in trades unionism, or more individualistic strategies like credentialism) -- hence different sorts of class  and class systems. Added to that, there are other dimensions of stratification in Weber's model -- one based on 'life styles' (or status), which may be quite different from class systems ( e.g. particular occupations might have traditional status regardless of their levels of income or wealth -- twenty years ago I'd have said teachers are one of these!). Finally, there are independent systems of political power too, where groups known generally as 'parties' ( which might include pressure groups or informal lobbying outfits like consumer protest movements) struggle for power to influence legislation or to control and limit markets etc.

That summarises the usual initial debate, and Weber usually emerges as the better theorist, because he can explain more of the complexities of modern stratification, while Marx is seen as too keen to reduce everything down to one fundamental model based on his own (questionable) analysis of capitalism as exploitation. I don't know how far advanced you are in your studies of Sociology yet, but you might want to stop right there at this initial level. 

You can go on to another level of debate though if you want. This might proceed by looking at Marx's other models of social class. The polarised one stems from his quick and revolutionary 'Manifesto' of 1848,when things were looking pretty polarised across Europe. When he comes to analyse actual societies after this revolutionary moment, he offers a more complex  analysis.The France of Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) (1851--1870) looked more complex, for example. There were still remnants of old classes around -- peasants and aristocracy, and the capitalist class was pretty fragmented (eg. into old aristocratic capitalist producers, and representatives of the new upstart types, based in finance). In fact there were seven classes in all ( if I remember rightly -- you should really check). They all had a political significance in the France of Napoleon III, who was skilful in managing alliances between these groups in order to keep himself in power -- he appealed to the peasants who had liked his great-uncle (the real Napoleon) AND the industrial bourgeoisie (who saw him as a moderniser). Similarly, it would be wrong to see Nap III as simply a representative of the capitalist class because he sometimes opposed them too (although only to modernise the whole system, says Marx).

You can access the real works by Marx very conveniently these days in the online Marx and Engels Internet Archive. It has a superb search engine so you can look up individual terms (which is perhaps the best way to get into some of it). There are several Weber sites too.

Other discussions in later Marx refer to other social classes (or to important social divisions within them)  too. He was aware of the growing emergence of a stratum of skilled labour, including middle managers and 'superintendents'. He also noticed the persistence of domestic servants in Britain (inevitably -- he employed some himself!!) These groups could be explained as arising from specialisation in the basic system --as it gets really productive (still from exploitation of labour), the surpluses can be spent on 'unproductive labour' (which does not itself generate surplus value directly).

So Marx isn't quite the simple advocate of 2 classes. You can still see him as arguing for two fundamental classes 'beneath the surface', 'in essence' as it were -- but he was aware that 'on the surface', a much more complex picture can emerge. One important and more recent exponent of this view was Poulantzas, who saw the fundamental economic 'level' of class society actually producing a number of more specific 'levels' 'above' it (specific economic, political and ideological/cultural levels) ( If you want to go further yo can have a look at my file on Poulantzas here). A person's actual surface position in stratification would be determined by the complex interplay of these different specific levels -- economic constraints might make people think of either an 'us and them' model of class or an 'occupational' one, political constraints might make people think of themselves as on some sort of 'ladder' of opportunity, while ideological/cultural factors might suggest a notion of 'community', 'white people' or whatever.

NB When Giddens was a marxist, he developed a powerful model of class relations as shaped by combinations of 'mediate' (eg social mobility chances) and 'proximate' (eg work situation) 'structuration factors'

Turning to Weber, we can complicate him a bit too. He also talked of more fundamental trends in stratification, with systems varying from predominantly class-based to predominantly status-based, depending on the state of the economy (roughly, affluence leads to more of a concern with status). He may or may not have seen the long-term trend towards a 'rational' system of stratification -- one based on 'ladders' of merit or expertise.

Some more recent Weberians have also interpreted his work as leading to the importance of local and widespread conflicts and contests between groups (hence 'conflict theory'). Others have pointed to the significance of the processes of closing off opportunities in markets as central to the whole thing -- and have developed a 'class closure' approach, looking at typical  ways in which groups are able to 'close off' or monopolise chances in their occupations and lives (unions or credentials, as above). A summary of the main approaches can be found in my file on Murphy's work here

So -- the battle still rages on this complex level. Marxists say Weber is naive in not recognising that the whole surface thing still rests on capitalism which gives it its whole point (eg the rationality that so interested Weber is still capitalist rationality -- ie irrationality for Marxists!!). Weberians like Turner have argued that the only way marxism has retained any credibility is by smuggling in the best bits of Weber -- so Poulantzas's sophisticated model actually looks pretty much like Weber's one  of class, status and party (economic level = class, political level = party, ideolgical/cultural = status).

If and when you want to, have a look at my notes on some more theorists here