Jon Elster is arguably the greatest living social analyst and theorist, no less than our generation's Max Weber. In fact, I've long suspected he's a philosopher masquerading as a social scientist. Elster concludes his masterful study of the master--Making Sense of Marx (1985)--as follows:
It is not possible today, morally or intellectually, to be a Marxist in the traditional sense. This would be someone who accepted all or most of the views that Marx held to be true and important--scientific socialism, the labour theory of value or the theory of the falling rate of profit, together with other and more defensible views. But, speaking now for myself only, I believe it is still possible to be a Marxist in a rather different sense of the term. I find that most of the views that I hold to be true and important, I can trace back to Marx. This includes methodology, substantive theories and, above all, values. The critique of exploitation and alienation remains central. A better society would be one that allowed all human beings to do what only human beings can do--to create, to invent, to imagine other worlds.
And these snippets will have to suffice as further evidence of the continuing relevance and importance of the Marxist tradition(s) in general and Marx in particular:
"Marx's most original contribution to the theory of belief formation was...his idea that economic agents tend to generalize locally valid views into invalid global statements, because of a failure to perceive that causal relations that obtain ceteris paribus may not hold unrestrictedly. For instance, although any worker may be seen as the marginal worker, not all workers can be at the margin. This is a local-global fallacy that leads to cognitive failures, different from yet related to the local-global confusions that lead to failures of action. This is perhaps the most powerful part of the Marxist methodology: the demonstration that in a decentralized economy there spontaneously arises a fallacy of composition with consequences for theory as well as for practice."
"Both the freedom to change employer and the freedom to become an employer oneself give rise to ideological illusions that embody the fallacy of composition. The first is the inference from the fact that a given worker is independent of any specific employer to the conclusion that he is free from all employers, that is independent of capital as such, to the conclusion that all workers can achieve such independence. It might look as if the conclusion of the first inference follows validly from the premise of the second, but this is due merely to the word ‘can’ being employed in two different senses. The freedom of the worker to change employer depends, for its realization, mainly on his decision to do so. He ‘can’ do it, having the real ability to do so should he want to. The freedom to move into the capitalist class, by contrast, only can be realized by the worker who is [to quote Marx] an ‘exceedingly clever and shrewd fellow.’ Any worker ‘can’ do it, in the sense of having the formal freedom to do so, but only a few are really able to. Hence the worker possesses the least important of the two freedoms—namely the freedom to change employer—in the strongest sense of these two senses of freedom. He can actually use it should he decide to. Conversely, the more important freedom to move into the capitalist class obtains only in the weaker, more conditional sense: ‘every workman, if he is an exceedingly clever fellow…can possibly be converted into an exploiteur du travail d’autrui.’ Correlatively, the ideological implications of the two freedoms differ. With respect to the first, the ideologically attractive aspect is that the worker is free in the strong sense, while the second has the attraction of making him free with respect to an important freedom. If the two are confused, as they might easily be, the idea could emerge that the worker remains in the working class by choice rather than necessity."
"Capital fetishism, like fetishism in general, is an illusory perception of how the economy works. Capital as alienated labour is possible because the workers have an unfounded belief about the entitlement of the capitalist to the means of production. The first is an illusion about causality, the second an illusion about morality."
"In Joan Robinson's phrase, it is 'an essential paradox of capitalism' that each capitalist wants low wages for his own workers, since this makes for high profits, yet high wages for the workers employed by other capitalists, since this makes for high demand for his products. This paradox underlies the crises of effective demand studied by Keynes. Although Marx did not attach the same importance to this variety of capitalist crises, he was fully aware of the contradictions generated by the dual role of workers in the economy: 'to each capitalist the total mass of workers, with the exception of his own workers, appear not as workers, but as consumers.'"
"Clearly Marx was a materialist in the sense of believing that the external world had an existence independent of, and prior to, the existence of man, even though some passages suggest a different view. I do not know of any passage where Marx argues for a materialist theory of consciousness, in any one of the possible variations of such a theory."
"As G.A. Cohen has argued, the relevant antonym for 'material' is 'social,' and not 'mental.' If the productive forces en bloc are said to be material, it is in opposition to the social relations of production, not in contrast to the products and activities of the mind."
"Human nature, according to Marx, can be described and evaluated in terms of needs and capacities. The development of humanity takes place by an interaction between needs and capacities, as capacities are developed so as to satisfy needs and then in turn give rise to new needs."
"Marx's discussion of alienation only makes sense against the background of a normative view of what constitutes the good life for man."
"[A]t the center of Marxism is a specific conception of the good life as one of active self-realisation rather than passive consumption."
"...[A]lienation prevents the workers from perceiving the injustice of exploitation."
"[Marx] condemned capitalism mainly because it frustrated human development and self-actualization."
"In market economies...classes are characterized by the activities in which their members are compelled to engage by virtue of the endowment structure."
"Liberalism advocates the free choice of lifestyle, but it forgets that the choice is to a large extent preempted by the social environment in which people grow up and live."
"A society cannot guarantee that all individuals will get what they need in order to carry out their preferred project of self-realisation, since it might then be impossible to match the demand for resources with the supply. It can, however, try to create a large variety of opportunities for self-realisation and good mechanisms for matching desires with opportunities. In doing so, however, it will be constrained by the need to favor (a) forms of self-realisation that do not require excessive amount of material resources and (b) forms that tend to the creation of material resources."
"Under capitalism life is lived not under the authority of the Good, but under the aristocracy of Capital."
"If Capital is to be able to pursue maximum profits, the labour power of human beings must be treated as a commodity, something to be exchanged, bought and sold solely on the criterion of whether or not a particular exchange increases the profit ratio of the enterprise concerned. [....] Labour power suffers from an inelasticity of supply unlike, for example, manufactured commodities or new material. Labour power is but a quality of a living human being and, as such, is not something that can be simply 'turned off' if demand slumps. Nor, for that matter, can it be 'turned on' readily when demand peaks. Labour power is an abstract property of human beings. It is their potential for producing value when placed in a work situation. For it to remain a property of human beings it must be considered secondary to those properties that constitute human life. If the labour power of humans is given precedence to those properties that constitute human social life, it is no longer a property of humans, for it has then become constitutive, a defining property, of its supplier."
"[W]hen we live in an economy organised under the aristocracy of Capital, our labour power must become our defining property on pain of failure of that economy."
"The main task for socialists must be this. We must rearticulate the criteria, the goals, that define our agency in the social world and which provide the reference groups which alone can carry the traditions necessary for moral life to proceed. We must rearticulate the authority of the Good. In doing this we must articulate the more specific goals and standards for the variety of human institutions we find in modern society and stand these goals in opposition to the market criteria of capitalist success. [....] Socialism is concerned with enabling the re-emergence of the reference groups that carry the traditions of thought and feeling necessary for the good life to flourish. The possibility of society being organized by the dictates of the Good, the possibility that we organize our institutions to bring about moral life in society (a civil society), requires that we inhibit the forces of capital that have dislocated our moral purpose."
"[B]eing negatively free is to enjoy an unrestricted choice of goods and goals, being positively free allows that the subject's choice of goods can be constricted by a conception of the good independent of the subject's recognition of those things as good. In the former, negative sense, freedom consists in choosing goods where what is good is good because the subject chose it. In the latter, positive sense, freedom consists in being able to acknowledge the good which is independent of one's choice. In short, positive freedom arises when one is free from those things that inhibit one's deference to the authority of the good."
"Property is not theft, but a good deal of theft becomes property."
"It may be thought that with the recent collapse of the Soviet Union, Marx's socialist philosophy and economics are of no significance today. I believe this would be a serious mistake for two reasons at least. The first reason is that while central command socialism, such as reigned in the Soviet Union, is discredited--indeed, it was never a plausible doctrine--the same is not true of liberal socialism. This illuminating and worthwhile view has four elements:
(a) A constitutional democratic political regime, with the fair value of the political liberties.
(b) A system of free competitive markets, ensured by law as necessary.
(c) A scheme of worker-owned business, or, in part, also public-owned through stock shares, and managed by elected or firm-chosen managers.
(d) A property system establishing a widespread and a more or less even distribution of the means of production and natural resources. (On these features, see John Roemer, Liberal Socialism [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994])
"[If the welfare state represents a phase of capitalism, one] profoundly influenced by the socialists, then it is at least possible that a socialist renewal can take place in the future, much as the original social-democratic compromise itself arose out of the bankruptcy of Karl Kautsky's Marxism."
"I would not...use the phrase 'market socialism'...since it implies that what defines socialism is the market relation, which is a contradiction in terms. What is critical is the use of markets to implement democratically planned goals in the most effective way."
"[A reconstruction of Marx's implicit moral theory] espouses the principle of maximum equal freedom (both negative and positive), which, in turn, can be explicated as the following set of principles:
1. negative freedom (i.e., freedom from the undue interference of others), and
2. positive freedom (i.e., the opportunity to determine one's own life), including
a) the right to equal participation in social decision-making processes and
b) the right of equal access to the means of self-realization, which entails
i. the right to an equal opportunity to attain social offices and positions, and
ii. the right to an equal opportunity to acquire other social primary goods (income, wealth, leisure time, etc.). "
"If both a relatively egalitarian theory of social justice...and a minimal set of Marxist empirical assumptions are essentially correct, then our natural duty to support and promote just social institutions (on both a national and international level) would seem to require us to do our fair share in supporting and promoting various working-class and progressive causes within our own societies and, if possible, on an international scale. (Perhaps the most efficient way to support such causes on an international scale is to monitor and, if necessary, alter our own societies' foreign policy, investment and aid policies, etc.). In any case, this seems to include supporting the struggles of workers and labor unions, the struggles of poor people (and nations) for a just share of the world's wealth, the struggles of oppressed minorities, and the struggle for the liberation of women, as well as environmental movements, and organizations and movements committed to the protection of human rights. If Marxist political theory is correct, however, the most important sorts of movements and organizations we can (and should) support are political parties explicitly committed to eliminating capitalism and bringing into the world a federation of democratc, self-managing socialist societies. The simple truth is that if a relatively egalitarian theory of social justice (and human rights) and the Marxist vision of contemporary social reality are essentially correct, then the only way we can respect other persons as free and equal moral beings--and, consequently, respect ourselves--is to do our fair share in supporting such movements, organizations, and struggles."
Please Note: Those doing in-depth research should look here, here, and here.
Addendum: See too this post by the political theorist Colin Farrelly at his blog, In Search of Enlightenment.