Capitalism with a dash of clarity

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
June 7, 2002

The first person to translate Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was an ambitious -year-old scholar at Harvard who within a decade was occupying the lead position in American sociology. Talcott Parsons was then fresh back from Heidelberg and keen to promote European theory in his homeland. His choice of Weber's essay was inspired as well as calculated. Parsons's 1930 translation helped ensure that Weber's concern for the role of ideas in understanding change was central to the spread of sociology throughout the English-speaking world. It is hard to imagine a better case for an anti-Marxist account of the growth of capitalism: enormously insightful while beautifully argued, Weber's doubts about the competing materialist analyses are never vulgarly put.

And what an arresting thesis. That there are characteristics of Calvinist Protestantism that stimulate modern capitalism. Protestantism's distinct doctrinal mix of a duty of unstinted and disciplined labour, of ascetic conduct that abjures waste, self-seeking and extravagance, of a "calling" ( beruf ) to acquire wealth not for oneself but in the name of God, all meant that believers shared an "elective affinity" with the requirements of industrial capitalism. Believers saved hard, toiled unrelentingly, lived plainly, always assured that the eye of God was directly on them and that their reward was salvation. Exemplified by the likes of Benjamin Franklin and John Bunyan, the argument that here we have a "spirit" of capitalism is compelling.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has given rise to debate ever since its original publication in 1904-05 and generations of students have engaged with Weber through that first translation. Parsons made no claims to be a linguist; he aimed merely to render the text in a serviceably literal English. Weber's own convoluted and angst -ridden style cannot have helped, but the end product was a book that, if of utmost intellectual importance, was hard going.

Stephen Kalberg, a native German now domiciled in Boston, provides the first translation since Parsons. Kalberg is a noted Weber scholar who established himself with an impressive essay in the American Journal of Sociology in 1980. His translation is more accessible than Parsons's and he is bold enough to meddle with syntax and grammar so long as it makes the text more comprehensible. At the same time, Weber's extensive and detailed footnotes are retained and even expanded.

This translation also includes Weber's 1906 essay, "The Protestant sects and the spirit of capitalism", and his more journalistic prefatory remarks to his Collected Essays in the Sociology of Religion . At £40, this book is handsomely produced but too expensive for students. Should it be made available in a cheap paperback, then it will deservedly challenge Parsons's bestselling version.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, University of Birmingham.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Author - Max Weber
ISBN - 1 57958 338 5
Publisher - Fitzroy Dearborn
Price - £40.00
Pages - 266
Translator - Stephen Kalberg

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