In a capitalist society, human needs are defined by the system of private ownership. Instead of mere food, clothing, and shelter, human beings need money. Moreover, capitalism mandates different needs for the different social classes that it creates. As capitalists accumulate wealth, their needs become increasingly more refined, even as the workers are forced to adjust their needs downward, making do with the bare minimum that the system pays them to stay alive. The modern system of ethics is shaped by the needs created by capitalism. In capitalism, self-denial becomes a cardinal virtue, with the moral ideal embodied by the miser and the thrifty worker scrimping and saving. Everything and everyone is treated in terms of utility and price. Capitalism demands that people be oriented to the world in this way simply to secure their own survival. In such a system, the worker quickly becomes conscious of his deprived and miserable status in relation to the capitalist. The solution to this situation of alienation is Communism, which does away with alienation by doing away with the system of private property that creates it.
Marx praises the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach as the best of Hegel’s followers, because of Feuerbach’s demonstration that religion is a reflection of human alienation stemming from antagonistic social relationships. Marx approves of Feuerbach’s criticism of Hegel for privileging religious belief, knowledge, abstract thought, and consciousness above the sensual, the real, and the material. Hegel correctly identifies labor as the essence of man but mistakenly defines labor as mental activity rather than actual physical labor. For Hegel, the dialectical process leads the mind in its search for certainty away from the world of the senses and objective reality, from nature to abstract self-awareness.
According to Hegel, the most highly evolved state of self-consciousness is a self-objectification that carries with it the experience of alienation. The function of religion, civil society, and the state is to enable the objectified, self-conscious subject to feel at home in the world. Marx sees this movement away from nature and toward a reliance on such institutions in order to ameliorate alienation as a mistake. For Marx, alienation results from estrangement from nature. In religious experience, the subject finds confirmation of his own alienation, he does not negate it. Human beings are motivated at a fundamental level by their relationship to natural objects through their senses. Their needs are sensual, and human passions stem from the excitements or frustrations of sensual desire for natural objects. This situation is the essence of human experience. Human beings seek self-realization by working on and transforming natural objects. Man is not at home in the world when this basic need does not find a proper outlet, which it lacks in capitalism. When one is estranged from nature, one is estranged from oneself.
This manuscript is particularly dense and difficult because in it Marx is so deeply engaged in Hegelian philosophy, which is itself an extremely difficult and abstract subject. Here we see Marx moving away from the idealism of his main philosophical predecessor, Hegel, toward the materialism that forms the bedrock of his own view of human nature and history. In these passages, Marx follows closely Hegel’s dialectical method, beginning with the most basic concepts and abstracting toward more comprehensive ones. Marx differs from Hegel in rejecting ideas, or pure thought, as the mode through which human beings relate to the world. In Hegel’s system, the mind’s initial attempt to grasp at the nature of objects leads it away from the input of the senses toward more abstract concepts, to culture and religion and eventually to an objective understanding of self. Consciousness and self-consciousness represent abstractions from material reality. In contrast, Marx argues that experience is built first and foremost around material needs and wants and that the organization of society grows out of this primary experience. In the manuscripts, this perspective leads him to focus on labor and the loss of control of one’s labor as the defining moment of the modern age. In later works, this will be supplemented by an elaborated notion of exploitation.