OVER this past week, countless thousands of words have been printed in publications across the world, including The National, to mark his 200th birthday.

The Economist magazine, no less, ran a lengthy article arguing he should be compulsory reading for today’s generation of world leaders. The Washington Post controversially insisted that “his economic analysis remains rather uncontroversial”, while philosopher Jason Barker wrote in The New York Times that educated liberal opinion is today more or less unanimous in its agreement that Marx’s basic thesis is correct.

The German postal service is to publish a stamp in his honour and the city of his birth, Trier, has just installed Karl Marx pedestrian traffic lights which display a red image of the bearded philosopher.

Not bad for a man who died in poverty 135 years ago, with fewer than a dozen mourners attending his funeral, and whose ideas were pronounced dead and buried more than a quarter of a century ago. So are Marx’s writings really applicable to our 21st-century world, or do we all now live in – as Michael Fry suggested in his column in the The National last week – “a post-modern reality where free individuals correctly see class as irrelevant”.

The suggestion has been around for a long, long time. Back in the 1950s, politicians, the media and academics routinely described the USA as a “classless society”. The Tory leader Harold Macmillan, after winning the 1959 UK General Election, declared that “the class war is over”. And in 1997, when Tony Blair became prime minister, he announced (in a blaze of originality): “The class war is over.”

If the class war really is over, that’s because the rich have won. In the UK today, the richest 10% of households own 45% of the wealth, while the poorest 50% own less than 9%. Across the Atlantic, income and wealth inequality has returned to levels not seen since the 1920s.

Those who pretend to themselves that we live in a classless society are not just mistaken. They are living in a fairytale world of their own imagination. Denying the existence of classes is like repudiating the law of gravity.

We live in a more enlightened society in many ways than we did at the time of Harold Macmillan or even during the reign of Tony Blair. We might not put it into practice, but most of us at least condemn discrimination when it comes to gender, race, religion, disability or sexual orientation. But class remains a bastion of inequality. When the subject is raised, even people who are otherwise progressive find themselves shuffling and mumbling with embarrassment.

For some individuals and organisations, Marxism is a rigid dogma that became frozen in time somewhere around 1917. But Marx himself memorably insisted that “nothing is constant but change” and continually revised and updated his ideas to take account of the shifting sands of society.

Like Harold Wilson, who famously said that he never got past the footnotes on page one of Das Kapital, I wouldn’t dare claim to be any kind of authority on Marxist economic theory. Like most people, my understanding of Marx’s ideas is second hand, as interpreted by others with more time and patience than I have to grapple with some of his dense economic analysis. But his broad principles seem to me to have stood the test of time far more robustly than those of the gurus of capitalism, past and present.

Marx predicted that capitalism would lead to rampant consumerism linked to globalisation of production: “In place of the old wants satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes.”

He foresaw more clearly than anyone the domination of the planet by giant faceless multinational corporations ruthlessly crushing all opposition. He warned of the destruction of soils and ecosystems by large-scale agriculture.

And unlike some of his disciples in Britain to today, he understood that the nationalism of small nations could be a force for progress.

In a speech commemorating the Krakow uprising for Polish independence, he said: “The Krakow revolution has set all of Europe a glorious example, because it identified the question of nationalism with democracy and with the liberation of the oppressed class.”

Rather than negating Marx, the digital society we live in today confirms and reinforces his analysis of capitalism and its drive to monetise and commodify everything. In recent decades international capitalism has privatised everything from transport to healthcare, from energy to water, from postal deliveries to public housing.

But Facebook has taken that to a whole new level – astonishing in its audacity – by privatising people. Billions of us have been turned into commodities, with the details of our lives worth immense fortunes to capitalist entrepreneurs.

Whenever Karl Marx is mentioned, as sure as the sun rises in the morning, a procession of right-wing commentators will pop up to remind us of the tyranny of some of the regimes that laid claim to his name. But as Tony Benn once pointed out, nobody ever blames Jesus Christ for the Spanish Inquisition.

The socialism of Marx was humane and liberal. He wrote with great sympathy of the plight of those burned out of their homes during the Highland Clearances. He opposed human dominion over nature and found it intolerable that “all creatures have been made into property: the fish in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth”.

He mourned the fact that capitalism, its quest to turn everything into cash, has “drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation”.

His most famous words, however, carved on his tomb at Highgate Cemetery in London which I visited a few years ago, are also his most relevant today. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world – the point is to change it.”