Karl Marx—Into the Inferno

The Open Society and Its Enemies jacket imageOn the 198th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, his ideas retain a vital place in the intellectual landscape. The global financial collapse has refocused attention on his theory that capitalism must inevitably be shaken by recurrent and increasingly violent crises. His analysis of the destructive nature of capitalism rings true in an era when the explosive economic growth of human society threatens irrevocable changes in the climate of the entire planet. Marxian concepts such as the exploitation of labor and alienation seem shockingly prescient when we consider the impoverished working conditions in a modern fulfillment centre, where the employee’s every action is monitored, measured and mechanized to the utmost. Of the great nineteenth century thinkers, only Charles Darwin equals Marx in the scope and scale of his influence.

Princeton University Press has published several books dealing with Marx and his work. Perhaps the best known is The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper. Popper sharply criticized Marx’s theories on historical development, seeing in them the roots of the totalitarian ideologies that dominated Europe in the years leading to the Second World War. Conversely, in Karl Marx’s Theory of History G. A. Cohen sought to defend and reconstruct historical materialism in one of the seminal works of analytical Marxism. Isaiah Berlin’s intellectual biography Karl Marx measures the full range of Marx’s work in characteristically polished prose and remains an excellent introduction.

Forthcoming at the end of this year, Marx’s Inferno by William Clare Roberts undertakes an entirely new reading of Marx’s magnum opus Capital. Roberts argues that Marx modeled Capital on Dante’s Inferno, playing the role of a Virgil guiding the worker through the social Hell engendered by insatiable capitalism. Rather than focusing exclusively on Capital as a work of political economy, Roberts returns us to the debates within nineteenth century socialism from which Capital emerged, while demonstrating their relevance to political life today. There can be no greater tribute to a thinker than that his ideas continue to generate such new readings and new thinking long after his death. Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag, Herr Marx.