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Marx and Modernity: Rethinking Labour, Capital, and Capitalism

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image of Frontiers of History in China

This article argues that China’s modern historical development and, more generally, modern global developments can be illuminated by a renewed encounter with Marx’s critical analysis of capitalism. This renewed encounter entails a fundamental critique of traditional Marxism’s understanding of capitalism and of socialism. It seeks to explain the historically dynamic character of capitalist society as a system of ongoing constraints. This central feature of the contemporary world cannot be grasped adequately by intellectual paradigms, such as theories of identity or of politics, which have been dominant in recent decades. The approach outlined here analyzes capitalist modernity as structured by a historically unique social function of labour, and is based on a fundamental reevaluation of the meaning of labour in Marx’s analysis as the object, rather than the standpoint of his critique. The focus on the historical specificity of Marx’s analytic categories also calls into question any conception of a transhistorically valid social science.


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