You will often see Marx described as a moral philosopher and Marx himself identified with this label, but I would say he is best described as a political economist. Marx, like a few other great thinkers, operated at the intersection of philosophy, economics and politics. The study of the economy grew out of the field of moral philosophy. Adam Smith, often considered the godfather of modern economics, was actually a moral philosopher – Marx shared some of the same interests or analytical focus as him.
They were both concerned with analysing the relationship between the state, markets, human nature and the human condition. They both accepted that markets were not natural spontaneous things, but the product of political interventions and specific social contexts, political struggles and value systems, and they sought to understand how those things combined to produce an economic system – that is political economy.
Crucially they were also concerned with imagining a future economic system and reaching judgments on what the good economic system should look like, the values on which it should be based and how you might get there. What we know as economics today is not only much more mathematical, but has often had relatively limited interest in placing economic transactions in historical, social, political, moral and psychological context, all of which were a focus for both Smith and Marx.
I think there are five main reasons why we’re still talking about Marx today: one is the financial crash of 2008 and the very sluggish global recovery based on low rates of growth. Marx argued capitalism was crisis-prone due to a falling rate of profit, which would cause breaks in what he called the circuits of capital accumulation. That would eventually manifest itself in some loss of wealth, or value, that would then have to be distributed and from Marx’s perspective recovered through an intensifying exploitation of labour. So if you live an era of crisis, Marx is someone people are going to go to try to reach for to explain that situation, precisely because he had a well developed theory of capitalist crisis and its underlying causes. As Marx put it in Das Kapital: “The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses.”.
The second reason is rising inequality. Marx would have expected this to be a natural outcome of exploitation. Intensifying inequality would contain the seeds of the downfall of capitalism, causing social polarisation, but also contributing to further falls in the rate of profit, because of surplus or over production, relative to falling consumer demand, which itself would be viewed as an outcome of conflictual class relations. To the extent we have had recovery in the UK and US, it hasn't really been accompanied by wage growth. The long hours/low wage problem is something that could be explained through a Marxist lens of intensifying exploitation in a crisis ridden system.
Third, people are angry – Brexit, Trump and rising nationalisms all point to political polarisation and a growing sense of people becoming alienated from the established political mainstream. Alienation brought about by an exploitative capitalist system was a big theme in Marx’s work. Nations seem increasingly divided and part of the reason for that is the fallout from the earlier two factors. When you have got lots of political hostility, tension and polarisation a Marxist lens provides a convenient explanation.
A fourth element is climate change and ecological collapse. You can use Marx to explain how a relentless quest for capital accumulation depletes the planet. Consequently we have seen a rise in Eco-Marxism. Finally, there are a lot of arguments that demand for labour is falling, due to automation, robots and so on. Marx talked about an industrial reserve army of the poor and unemployed. As people see these things happening, it is obviously tempting to reach for Marx, especially as a relative lack of stable well-paid employment becomes one of the biggest issues facing advanced societies.
Marx’s legacy is undoubtedly mixed. In political terms , once it became clear that notionally Marxist regimes in various parts of the world were not functioning or delivering, Marxism barely survived as a political movement. As a mode of analysis of contemporary capitalism it has never gone away. Marxism has always been factionalised though, and that is true, both politically and academically. In the 1970s there was the big Poulantzas v Miliband debate and even today there are different stripes of Marxism with many of the academic debates arcane and complex.
Politically, it's hard to argue that the regimes that Marx’s thought and arguments inspired have been anything short of disastrous, particularly for those living there. Obviously these various regimes offered up interpretations of Marx that arguably distorted his thought and arguments, but very few figures and theorists have given rise to alternative socio-economic orders and systems of politics, in the way Marx did. That is some legacy. Unfortunately the form it took in practice meant it wasn’t a good legacy, and Marxism as a political project, as opposed to a mode of analysis, is probably tarnished for good.
One thing I would flag which is a very strange development is there are a number of economists and traders in the City with sympathies for Marx’s analysis. Not long after the financial crash George Magnus, Chief Economist at UBS was making the case for Marx. Tony Nonfield is a city trader with a recent book out on the City from a Marxist perspective. Michael Roberts is a City economist with a book out called The Long Depression. It seems incongruous that we have got people in the City writing books advocating Marx – we live in strange times. If people would like to understand more about Marx, David Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s Capital is a good place to start, as is his website.