KARL MARX WASN’T ALWAYS a communist. As a contributor to the Rheinische Zeitung, a liberal newspaper started in Cologne in January 1842, he publicly rejected the label. In September 1843, shortly before emigrating to Paris, he described communism in a letter to Arnold Ruge as a “dogmatic abstraction.” Bemoaning the Prussian censorship that had hindered his editorship of the paper, he reported in the same letter that “the very air here turns one into a serf and I can see no opening for free activity in Germany.”

In the early 1840s, Marx was an advocate of liberal reform. He believed that public opinion could be stimulated through exposure to radical ideas, thus leading to democratic social change. A stout defender of the poor, the marginalized, and the socially oppressed, Marx wrote articles critical of government policy, including one targeting proposals by the Landtag of Rhineland-Palatinate to outlaw the gathering of forest timber. It was one provocation too many for the Prussian censors, and under mounting pressure Marx resigned his editorship on March 17, 1843.

He left for Paris in October, newly wed to the semi-aristocratic Jenny von Westphalen (her father Ludwig, a civil servant, had been awarded the title). Once there, Marx entered the bohemian circles of artists, writers, composers, and social philosophers.

No longer simply a man of letters, Marx encountered a new phenomenon in Paris, a new social subject quite foreign to his sheltered literary education: the French working class, or proletariat that Marx would soon be using as a model for his theory of alienated labor. Paris also provided much-needed critical distance from both Prussian politics and the liberal milieu of the Rheinische Zeitung. It also, crucially, pulled him from the orbit of the Young Hegelians (Edgar and Bruno Bauer and their followers) whose “German ideology” or philosophical idealism he would ruthlessly criticize.

Sven-Eric Liedman’s A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx (translated by Jeffrey F. Skinner) is an illuminating investigation into the multiple personalities of this infinitely fascinating figure. Rather than treat the young Marx as apprentice to the mature thinker, Liedman devotes more than a hundred pages of his 768-page volume to mapping out the vast landscape of Marx’s philosophical and political heritage, prior to his departure for Paris in the autumn of 1843, where his fateful encounter with Friedrich Engels the following summer would cement history’s most famous double act.

Liedman’s narrative contains an impressive account of the rivals Marx locked horns with in his early years before, as it were, Marx became Marx. Indeed, such is the depth of Liedman’s research into these early encounters that we are given to wonder at the true identity of our central protagonist. Might we not have the theory of “Marxism” had Marx’s critique of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, France’s prominent socialist of the time, never reached completion? In the 1840s especially, Marx was a martyr to the unfinished manuscript.

There’s a strong case to be made that Marx was neither a philosopher nor a scientist. He discovered his own “ways of seeing” that defied and continue to defy easy categorization. Marx was a radical seer, ahead of his time, whose confrontational personality repelled both adversaries and allies alike, tore best-laid plans in two, and resulted in a disorderly zigzag of deportations from France, Belgium, and Germany (he and his family would finally settle in London in the latter half of 1849). But this “repellent” character was arguably intrinsic to Marx’s thought. If he wrestled with personal demons, then such was the nature of the radically transcendental project that he devoted his entire life struggling to grasp, and that successive generations of readers have attempted to complete in the name of Marxism.

Perhaps the most significant and radical consequence of this reading of Marx is that “Marxian economics” is an ideological derailment of his true aims. Marxism is not an economic school of thought to rival the classical, neo-classical, Austrian, Keynesian, et cetera, schools. For Marx, there was no objective or scientific approach to the study of economics that could be separated from his revolutionary ambition to see the end of capitalism, the state, and class society. He would certainly have been appalled by the abstract dictatorship of “financial markets” and micro-economists, who pretend to infer the wealth of nations from stocks and share prices (“fictitious capital” in Marx’s words) and international currency fluctuations.

The most enigmatic term in Marx’s theoretical arsenal is “critique.” The word was employed hypnotically by 1840s radicals, and appears three times in different forms in the subtitle of Marx and Engels’s first jointly authored work, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism (1845). It also appears in the title of Engels’s “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy,” published in Marx’s short-lived “annals” the Deutsche-Französische Jahrbücher. Instantly upon receiving Engels’s “furious reckoning with modern economic theory,” Marx was a convert to the cause of thinking economics, politics, and philosophy as one.

Critique was Marx’s search for a method, one that went beyond mere understanding of an opponent’s ideas and proceeded to expose their blind spots. As Liedman explains: “To clarify the economic context, the economists often looked back to a kind of original condition of humanity before all development began.”

In such rose-tinted visions, capitalism evolves in harmony with human nature and the individual’s innate propensity to competition. Today, this evolutionary ideology informs the introduction of automation in the workplace, which is experiencing startling growth through a combination of government investment and stock market speculation in robotics and AI technology. Intriguingly, there have also been calls among leftist supporters of a universal basic income for high-tech solutions to poorly paid and unfulfilling jobs.

Marx couldn’t have anticipated the “surplus humanity” (to quote Mike Davis in Planet of Slums) that today raises the disquieting prospect of a world in which machines “evolve” to the point of making workers redundant. But to the extent that Marx’s basic understanding of capitalism holds true, let’s recall the following statement from The Poverty of Philosophy, published in 1847: “The machines are as little an economic category as the oxen that draw the plough.”

Before pinning one’s hopes on some high-tech solution to alienating forms of work, we might note why machines were introduced into manufacturing in the first place. For the capitalist firm intending to remain competitive, there comes a point when what Marx names “variable capital” (in the form of labor costs) must be reduced against “constant capital” (machines, premises, and raw materials). Machines don’t demand a pay rise; at least, not yet.

Technology is not a thing. What counts for technological innovation involves capitalists, in the face of competition, being driven to produce faster, cheaper, and in ever-greater volumes. And, to this end, it is the ratio of workers to machines that changes, mostly to the detriment of workers, with the trend toward ever-more-proficient machines replacing humans in all sectors of the economy. Note, however, that in certain sectors, and especially during recessions, investment in machines may be too expensive, and in this case capitalists will readily revert to living labor.

There is a possible upside to the rise of the machines, according to readers of Marx’s so-called “Fragment on Machines,” a section from the Grundrisse of about 20 pages. Despite its succinctness the text has been championed as a kind of cyber-manifesto for what it supposedly says about the utopian potentials of technology. The Italian Marxist Antonio Negri argues that machines reduce the “necessary labour of society to a minimum” and with it the capitalist domination of workers’ time. As machines become more integrated into production, replacing more of workers’ labor, so too does it become ever more difficult for capitalists to appropriate “surplus value” from their labor, and so make a profit.

Although the internet may be suited to delivering products and services at zero marginal cost, this is far trickier to realize in sectors other than information. A computer programmer can devise an application and distribute it freely online. Where data is concerned the opportunities for extracting surplus value from workers’ labor drastically diminish. Managers are replaced by direct and unmediated relations between producers. But how might such a model be applied in a notoriously labor-intensive sector such as agriculture?

In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels deliberate on the communist utopia, in which “it [is] possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner…” Instead of a society where automation has freed workers from the curse of surplus labor, the utopia imagined in The German Ideology is of the polyvalent worker. Not a society where work is left to obedient and uncomplaining machines but one in which labor is unified by communal interest.

I wonder whether Liedman’s title A World to Win is too optimistic. There was a time not long ago when the future of the industrialized world hinged on the settlement of a certain Marxist legacy and the standoff between actually existing socialism and capitalism. But where might Marx figure in this current world of ours?

Liedman notes that after the collapse of the Soviet regime, a proliferation of Marx research began to reenergize its subject. The appearance of new biographies and monographs not only attests to Marx’s return to some sort of “relevance,” but also to a modish magnetism. His theorizing of hidden conflicts and coming revolution appeals to younger readers, and the flood of new titles, and leftist publishing in general, reaffirms the trend. This year’s Marx bicentennial has seen the release of a Marx feature film, The Young Karl Marx directed by Raoul Peck; a West End play, Young Marx starring Rory Kinnear; and my own novel, Marx Returns.

Marx is riding a new wave of interest. And yet how could Marxism ever hope to win over today’s world?

The type of proletarian worldview that drove Marx to strive for a just alternative to 19th-century capitalism registers far more weakly in our present. We are experiencing a planetary emergency of truly epic proportions, a perfect storm of environmental disasters. Witness this year’s melting glaciers and arctic fires, refugees drowning in the oceans, stateless and in a state of limbo, and the imperialist adventures that dominate the politics of the entire Arab and Muslim world — not to mention the mundane threat of nuclear war.

Saving the planet, rather than changing the world, is surely the most urgent political challenge facing humanity today. And yet one would be foolish to underestimate the extent to which the crisis can be blamed on the social division of labor and the private wealth accumulation that have dominated our economies and depleted our planet’s resources since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

This is already a powerful Marxist insight, albeit one that only identifies the problem. Marx’s research establishes that rational appeals to sound judgment won’t change the world. Only when tangible alternatives to the capitalist world order become possible will people be inclined to take them. In this sense, Marx’s most valuable lessons still remain to be learned.

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Jason Barker is professor of English at Kyung Hee University, South Korea. He is the writer-director of the German documentary Marx Reloaded and author of the novel Marx Returns.