The late Huw Wheldon of the BBC once described to me a series, made in the early days of radio, about celebrated exiles who had lived in London. At one stage, this had involved tracking down an ancient retiree who had toiled in the British Museum’s reading room during the Victorian epoch. Asked if he could remember a certain Karl Marx, the wheezing old pensioner at first came up empty. But when primed with different prompts about the once-diligent attendee (monopolizing the same seat number, always there between opening and closing time, heavily bearded, suffering from carbuncles, tending to lunch in the Museum Tavern, very much interested in works on political economy), he let the fount of memory be unsealed. “Oh Mr. Marx, yes, to be sure. Gave us a lot of work ’e did, with all ’is calls for books and papers …” His interviewers craned forward eagerly, to hear the man say: “And then one day ’e just stopped coming. And you know what’s a funny fing, sir?” A pregnant pause. “Nobody’s ever ’eard of ’im since!” This, clearly, was one of those stubborn proletarians for the alleviation of whose false consciousness Marx had labored in vain.
Until comparatively recently, with the slight exception perhaps of certain pockets within the academy, it was a general tendency among educated people as well, even those of radical temper, to put their old volumes of Marx up on the shelf reserved for the phlogiston theory. Would we again need to consult Critique of the Gotha Program, or the celebrated attacks on Dühring and Lassalle? A few of us kept a bit of powder dry, just in case the times should turn dialectical again. One or two writers predicted that Marx’s relevance would be rediscovered: John Cassidy was arguably the most surprising of these in that one hardly expected, in the fall of 1997, an essay from the economic specialist of The New Yorker announcing that the co-author of the 1848 Communist Manifesto could turn out to be “the next” significant intellectual for those whose job it was to study the markets. James Ledbetter, himself an accomplished business journalist, has since produced an admirable Penguin edition of Marx’s journalism (most of the best, which was very good indeed, having been produced for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune). And Francis Wheen, who wrote a notable biography of Marx in 1999, has now published an anatomy of Capital (as I shall henceforth call it), which concludes with the opinion that Marx “could yet become the most influential thinker of the twenty-first century.”