Roughly fifteen years ago, there was an article in TIME Magazine which named Wittgenstein the Philosopher of the Century. It was written by Daniel Dennett, famous for being a philosopher of science and a major advocate for atheism. His principle thesis was that works of philosophy are classics because they: A) solve a major philosophical problem, or B) create a philosophy of such controversy that it demands to be read and discussed for centuries afterward. With his most famous volume - Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus - Wittgenstein tried to create an A), but he ended up with a B). The same might be said of Marx, only far moreso. Wittgenstein tried to ‘solve’ the issues of language, cognition, human perception, Marx tried to ‘solve’ the very fundament of human existence. In this way, there is no philosopher, not even Kant or Hegel, who was more ambitious and tried harder to put all human and human endeavor under a single, pithy explanation. To find a similarly ambitious project, you’d probably have to go back to The Bible itself or the Koran.
Marx, for all his fascination with Hegel, was not particularly interested in traditional philosophical problems. Philosophy was too small for him. It was just one facet of a human equation which inserted sociology, economics, and revolutionary action. To Marx, there is no idea that could be studied without the contexts of its practical application, of other ideas, and all the possible realities which could result if the idea was put into action - what Isaiah Berlin calls the ‘total activity of men.’ On this issue, he was absolutely right. Where he went wrong was in thinking that the total activity of men could be explained.
Nevertheless, Marx was the philosophical Zero-Hour at which the slate was wiped clean of God, spirit, and ideal forms. After his impact, it was no longer a given that such things existed, and philosophers had to re-assert the mind-body duality in order to discuss it. Other philosophers before Marx and Feuerbach held a belief in pure materialism, like Diderot and Helevetius, and probably Voltaire too though he never discussed it directly. But it was an assertion they had to make against the prevailing winds. The very passion which Marxism inspired around the world made materialism an acceptable belief to have - at least in intellectual circles.
Like all materialists, Marx does not believe that our sentience makes us an object above nature. We are a natural creature; an animal like any other animal. All natural things which apply to other animals apply to us - a belief which Darwin in many ways vindicated when he published On the Origin of Species in 1859, eight years before the first volume of Das Kapital was published.
Where humans differed from animals was in their ability to create tools - not use tools, but to actually create them. And because we can create tools to help us provide for our basic necessities, our relationship to nature has been altered and thrown off-kilter. With every tool comes a new necessity which this tool creates, which creates the necessity for another tool, which creates a vicious cycle of need. There is a bit of a contradiction in this view of mankind’s uniqueness against his absolute material view of man being beholden to biology, but only a slight one that needn’t concern us yet.
For Marx, technology was human nature itself. Technology is responsible for creating human history, and responsible for however we’ve evolved since becoming human beings. People are not different from each other by any difference in their “human natures,” an unverifiable metric according to Marx, but because of what they have to do in order to meet their basic needs.
For the 18th century French materialists Marx read so devotedly, human history is a story of questions that could now be answered, of mistakes that would never again be made, of ideas whose flowering could never be stopped. In the age of the Scientific Method and empirical observation, a correct answer could allegedly be determined to any possible question. The Age of Superstition was over, and so was the Age when rulers could exploit the superstitions of their subjects.
Marx did not hold with this view. He believed that technology determined the very questions which men asked, the answers provided, and the ideas which men formed. The questions materialists looked forward to answering were nothing more than ideological constructs made by the class who controls the technology to justify keeping it in their hands. One of his famous quotes is that “The windmill gives you society with the Feudal Lord: the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.” No doubt had he lived long enough, he’d have said “The car assembly line gives you society with the multinational corporate board, the internet society with the national security state.” And just as he had then, he’d have a legitimate point. Do we shape the technology, or does the technology shape us?
According to Marx, the answer is obvious. Technology shapes us, and since technology is always evolving, we are always evolving with it, and there is therefore no singular human nature. Obviously, the worldview of people who control technology is different than the people who are enslaved by it, so, once again, his point is legitimate. And in this sense, he is the very opposite of Hegel. To put it very simplistically: Hegel believed that we humans shape the material world through our perception of eternal forms, to which we are arriving at points ever closer to their true perception. But Marx believed that the material world shapes us.
Whereas Hegel sees the development of man as an internal process, Marx sees the development of man as completely external - a material need brought on by technological innovation, and therefore we are always at war with one another so that our needs are provided for. Marx refers to these various groups of people at war with one another as ‘classes.’ Each class is banded together by mutual interest - the acquisition of an object that will best provide them with greater satisfaction.
But since greater satisfaction is often obtained at the expense of other people, there is always a class of people who are subjegated by those people who are in a position to seize control of the technology which shapes us (or what Marx calls the “Means of Production”), and whose basic needs are therefore met far less often. Therefore, the entire story of humanity can, and perhaps should, be seen as the story of one class to justify the continuance of their power and extort labor from lower classes so that this ‘ruling class’ may live lives of greater satisfaction. In order to do this, their subjects are required to subsist on just enough to keep them alive and productive - a process which Marx calls “surplus value.” And from this process is the need for “capital” formed, a term which in Marx’s case is mostly utilized as a less specific way of saying ‘money,' but can also include 'goods', and 'favors.'
But since the Ruling Class must employ ever-new technologies to keep their hold on the Means of Production, they must give their subjects ever-new technologies to master, and the subjects acquire ever greater abilities, which eventually give them the ability to completely overthrow their masters, and these rebels then become the masters themselves - thereby creating a new level of history (it’s a common misconception in Marx that this overthrow happens only once) - which then creates its own culture and laws and philosophies and customs and social structures for its particular era - structures from which it is impossible to extricate one’s self to see past.
Nevertheless, people insist on seeing the truths of their era as universal. This is a process which Marx calls ‘alienation.’ According to Marx’s process of alienation, what we see as universal truth is nothing more than the justification given by a higher class to oppress a lower class. Everything - money, law, institutions, morality itself, even scientific and mathematical discovery (though not math and science themselves), everything believed in by everyone from the richest man to the poorest - is just the institutional means of keeping the ruling class in authority. The ruling class does not only control the means of production or capital, the ruling class controls thought itself, and every life within this social structure becomes its own kind of prison, in which we completely lose sight of life’s natural, biological balance. Even the pattern of thought which each person holds (which Marx calls ‘ideology’) their values and beliefs, is determined by their place in the economic firmament (which Marx calls ‘superstructure’).
To Marx, our lives exist in history’s whirlpool, a dialectic spiral in which one class is constantly throwing over another. It is a process which only ends when the lowest of all classes, the “Proletariat,” which possesses nothing and is treated as a commodity, rise up successfully against their oppressors that history will reach its logical end (in both senses, another concept from Hegel). When the proletariat finally rises up, there will be no class left to oppress, and humankind will be free and equal, with no meaningful differences from person to person, and there will no longer be need for class war. Institutions which were once used by one class to oppress another will now be used purely for mankind’s benefit.
Like many thinkers, Marx means to interpret all human endeavor - morality, philosophy, politics, religion, the arts - through this single world-defining prism. And like all singular prisms, it has an extremely seductive logic. But when you examine what this ultimately means for humanity, the implications are very disturbing.
If no object matters except in the context of the whole, and if human beings are in themselves just objects beholden to the totality of technological and biological existence, then individual freedom is almost completely inconsequential. And since there is no singular human nature, human beings have no need for individual freedom. These implications show, to me at least, that this vision of humanity is corrupt and totalitarian at its very core. There is no meaning in human endeavor apart from the movement of history toward a classless society, and all human actions, however venal or bloody, can be justified on the altar of moving history toward its utopian conclusion. Capitalism may have terrible contradictions and inequalities, but a state built upon Marx is a state that possesses fanatical anti-individualism as its core belief.