The Modern Challenge to Tradition: Fragmente eines Buchs
Hannah Arendt, edited by Barbara Hahn and James McFarland, with Ingo Kieslich and Ingeborg Nordmann
Wallstein Verlag, € 49.00 (cloth)

In this era of economic precarity and resurgent authoritarianism, it is unsurprising that both Karl Marx and Hannah Arendt occupy a central place in many readers’ minds—and a lingering one on their nightstands. Sales of Capital boomed following the 2008 financial crisis, and Donald Trump offers good reason to read The Origins of Totalitarianism. It is fitting, then, that the new Critical Edition of Arendt’s complete works begins with this, a volume of fragments from an unfinished book originally planned to be called Karl Marx and the Tradition of Political Thought.

Sales of Capital boomed following the 2008 financial crisis, and Donald Trump offers good reason to read The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Born in Hanover in 1906, Arendt grew up primarily in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) in Eastern Prussia. Her parents were assimilated Jews of the upper middle class and dedicated activists in the Social Democratic Party. She studied philosophy at the University of Marburg under Martin Heidegger, with whom she had an infamous affair, and went on to receive a doctorate under Karl Jaspers at the University of Heidelberg in 1929. Although intensifying anti-Semitism in Germany and the surging influence of the Nazi party made pursuit of an academic post nearly impossible, Arendt received funding to write a habilitation thesis under Heidegger’s supervision. (German professors are traditionally required to write this second doctoral dissertation in order to receive a permanent post.) Her experience of anti-Semitism drove her to explicit political commitments, and she began to work with Zionist organizations conducting research on the dire state of Germany’s Jews. This work made her an enemy of the Nazis, forcing her into exile in 1933 in France. In 1940, she fled to the United States, where she remained for the rest of her life, maintaining a prominent career as a public intellectual and political philosopher.

The first volume of the Critical Edition presents significant new material, previously available only to those willing to sift through manuscripts and typescripts in the Library of Congress. Presenting texts (in both German and English) written between 1951 and 1954, it is a formidable task of intellectual historical reconstruction. It fills in two lacunae in Arendt’s work: the intellectual labor connecting The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) with later books such as The Human Condition (1958), and the development of Arendt’s thought across the 1950s through a series of fragmented engagements with the writings of Marx and through polemics with American and German peers. It is hard to imagine a timelier dialogue. Some of Arendt’s ideas on Marx are incorporated into volumes published during her lifetime, including The Human Condition, and others have since appeared in posthumous volumes edited by Jerome Kohn. What makes this volume unique and rich is that it not only includes previously unpublished texts, but also, by documenting the process of revision, tracks, in detail, her evolving response to Marx’s thought.


In Georg Büchner’s play Danton’s Death (1835), the titular French Revolutionary cries the words originally made famous by Pierre Vergniaud, “The revolution is like Saturn—it eats its own children.” This line may have been in Arendt’s mind when she was writing these texts, which over the course of nearly 600 pages attempt to come to terms with the revolutionary challenge Marx elaborates in political philosophy. She responds by developing an alternative form of politics, what she calls “natality”: collaboration births a future, instead of revolutionary fervor devouring it.

The volume’s value lies, in part, in clarifying the relation between Arendt and Marxism, which has long been defined in polemical terms. Marxists often call Arendt a reactionary, conservative, or elitist; they describe her as preferring, in the historian Eric Hobsbawm’s words, “metaphysical construct or poetic feeling over reality.” Such accusations easily seem misplaced now that Arendt is best known for powerful texts such as “We Refugees” and Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) that are clearly on the left-liberal side of the spectrum. It can seem strange that a woman committed to many progressive causes in her time, and who revered Rosa Luxemburg, could be tarred as a reactionary.

Like Marx, Arendt recognizes the “mute violence” of the marketplace.

The story is not quite so simple. Arendt’s controversial essay “Reflections on Little Rock” was criticized as borderline racist, at least, by her contemporaries and by the philosopher Kathryn S. Belle. The Origins of Totalitarianism hints at an equivalency between communism and Nazism, a thesis now associated with Ernst Nolte. The Human Condition and The Life of the Mind (1978) do move beyond factual claims about social history to speculative thinking about the nature of work, action, and judgement. On Revolution (1963) privileges the American Revolution above the French, an evaluation with which many on the left would disagree. Finally, insofar as Arendt contributed to the journal Confluence: An International Forum, founded and edited by Henry Kissinger, one could even paint her as something of a “cold warrior” or, as the historian Samuel Moyn does in an excellent new book on Arendt from Verso, a “Cold War liberal,” although one imagines she would detest both appellations.

The new volume on Marx will force scholars to reevaluate some of their presumption. By arranging some essays that Arendt ultimately published, such as “Understanding and Politics,” within their chronological context along unpublished pieces, such as “Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought: The Modern Challenge to Tradition,” the editors piece together the material for a book length study that ventures into the profound territory laying in between The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition. The book makes clear Arendt’s deep regard for, and apprehension at, the revolutionary claims of Marxism. Like Marx, Arendt understands revolution to be the product of the disjuncture between modernity’s ideals of justice and equality and the realities of capitalism. Like Marx, she recognizes the “mute violence” of the marketplace. Nonetheless, she doubts Marxism can avoid the Büchner problem: the terrors of revolutionary violence. Occasionally she remains stuck in the clichés of Cold War polemic, and here her reading of Marx can be weak. But where she breaks with this blindness, she develops brilliant insights.

For Arendt, the fundamental distinction is between the private and the public spheres.

The essence of Arendt’s disagreement with Marx is the importance she places on the question of political rights above social ones. She develops this priority most extensively in On Revolution (1963). Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, her biographer, cites a review by Michael Harrington, who would go on to found the Democratic Socialists of America, as representative of the Marxist reception. Though he accepts the arguments of the latter half of the book, with its praise of Rosa Luxemburg’s “council communism,” Harrington rejects the argument upon which Arendt’s praise rests: the priority of political rights over social amelioration. In our post-Occupy era, the starkness of Arendt’s dichotomy may strike us as exaggerated, yet she stuck to it. Late in life, when her friend Mary McCarthy asked her why certain social matters could not simply be defined as rights (health care, say), she dodged the question. For Arendt, the fundamental distinction is between the private and the public spheres. Attempting to politicize the private, she believes, will more likely subjugate politics to economics than vice versa.

As in her conversation, Arendt’s writing on social concerns is often characterized by defensiveness, yet she does criticize capitalism. This volume is a boon to those interested in her idiosyncratic thought on economic matters, in particular her distance from both socialist and free market thinkers. According to his dialectical model of history, Marx thought capitalism would create its own gravediggers. Arendt doubts any such tendency to self-destruction, and thus she finds nothing dialectically redeemable about the violence of the marketplace. While a free market would totally colonize the space of political action, Arendt also argues that total expropriation is “hell.” The dogged pursuit of economic ends, whether the free market or redistribution, results in mass violence. That economic compulsion can only be challenged by politics, and politics can only be determined by individuals exercising judgment in public. The problem is that the means of ensuring the possibility of exercising judgment cannot be predetermined. The Modern Challenge to Tradition does not square this circle of political checks on economic pursuits so much as it dwells in the intractability of the problem.

Marx’s version of human nature is a problem, Arendt argues, because it subordinates political questions to economic forces.

Arendt’s arguments in the material assembled here are wide ranging and often made tentatively. This makes for exciting reading as one enters the “hidden abode” (to borrow Marx’s phrase from Capital) of her intellectual production, but not all of her critics will find their concerns addressed. Insofar as there is a thesis that unifies the collection, it is in “Tradition and the Modern Age” (1954), where she argues that Marx severs the thread of a way of thinking about man that had been dominant since Socrates and Plato. “Animal rationale,” she writes, is no longer the model of mankind, but rather “homo laborans.” This means Marx’s man is “never to leave what to Plato was ‘the cave’ of everyday human affairs.” With this shift in terminology, Arendt takes Marx to be more an anthropologist than a political economist (as he identified himself). This reading is premised on a rejection of Marx’s explicit disbelief in human nature. Effectively, Arendt claims, Marx does have an idea of human nature; he just does not admit it. Marx’s version of human nature is a problem, she argues, because it subordinates political questions to economic forces. For her, society should be governed by political judgment, not by economic necessity.

The Modern Challenge to Tradition begins where Origins ends, with an essay titled “Ideology and Terror” (1953). In the chapter of the same title concluding Origins, she had made one of her most controversial claims, “that loneliness, once a borderline experience . . . has become an everyday experience of the ever growing masses of our century.” Her critics easily believe in the prevalence of loneliness, but they often challenge the apparently causal relation she proposes between it and totalitarian states. The later essay included in The Modern Challenge responds to her critics and revises aspects of her argument that had been genuinely unclear. Arendt maintains the centrality of loneliness to totalitarianism, but more clearly grounds it not in an existential cause—say, anomie, that keyword of the social theory of Emile Durkheim—but in a political one: terror. Loneliness is not the cause of totalitarianism, she claims, but terror produces loneliness. Once a population is lonely, totalitarian governments will find it far easier to govern, for lonely people find it hard to join together, lacking the strong extra-familial bonds necessary to organize rebellions. These individualizing effects of loneliness prevent political action even in non-totalitarian states, because politics requires collaboration and mutuality. In this regard, Arendt claims a role for emotions in politics.

Once a population is lonely, totalitarian governments will find it far easier to govern—for lonely people find it hard to join together.

Contrary to loneliness, she argues that solitude can be a boon to politics. While loneliness “is closely associated with uprootedness and superfluousness . . . to have no place in the world, recognize and guaranteed by others,” solitude is the exact opposite. It “requires being alone,” but “loneliness shows itself most sharply in company with others.” She often quotes a line from Cicero, originally attributed to Cato, to describe the difference: “‘Never was he less alone than when he was alone’ (numquam minus solum esse quam cum solus esset).” Yet, Arendt writes, “solitude can become loneliness; this happens when all by myself I am deserted by my own self.” She concludes,

what makes loneliness so unbearable is the loss of one’s own self which can be realized in solitude, but confirmed in its identity only by the trusting and trustworthy company of [one’s] equals. In [loneliness], man loses trust in himself as the partner of his thoughts and that elementary confidence in the world which is necessary to make experiences at all. Self and world, capacity for thought and experience are lost at the same time.

While Arendt believes that totalitarianism produces loneliness, and counts Stalin a totalitarian, she does not blame him on Marx. She states that, ironically, Stalin proves Marx’s significance, because Marx “is the only of the great of the past who was not only already concerned with predicaments which still are our own, bust [sic] who could be used and misused by one of the novel forms of government.” A dubious honor to have one’s relevance be grounded in one’s misappropriation, yet her criticism of Marx only begins here.


Arendt finds two problems in Marx. One is methodological, that he replaces philosophy with politics. The other is philosophical: Marx has a dialectical model of history. For Marx, she summarizes, capitalism consists of a process in which progressively more people transition from peasants to wage laborers, who have no option but to work in order to survive. Up to this point, she agrees. The next step is the problematic one. Marx argues that the division of society into owners and workers makes revolution necessary and inevitable. Arendt argues, by contrast, that the formation of labor parties and the granting of legal rights to the working class ends the inevitability of revolution. While this appears to fit within the classic divide between reform and revolution, Arendt understands it as having profound, philosophical significance. Furthermore, just because revolution is not inevitable does not mean reform will solve the problem presented by the capitalist economy.

Arendt recognizes in Marx a way to think about the “mute violence” of modern society, a violence she finds ubiquitous in democracies no less than in dictatorships. She identifies Marx as the first in the great tradition of Western political thought to focus on this problem:

Marx knew that the incompatibility between classical political thought and modern political conditions lay in the accomplished fact of the French and Industrial Revolutions, which together had raised labor, traditionally the most despised of all human activities, to the highest rank of productivity and pretended to be able to assert the time-honored ideal of freedom under unheard-of conditions of universal equality. He knew that the question was only superficially posed in the idealistic assertions of the equality of man . . . and only superficially answered by giving laborers the right to vote. This was not a problem of justice that could be solved by giving the new class of workers its due. . . . There is the fact of the basic incompatibility between the traditional concepts making labor itself the very symbol of man’s subjection to necessity and the modern age which saw labor elevated to express man’s positive freedom, the freedom of productivity.

Reform is not enough, but Marx was wrong to wish to “realize philosophy,” that is, to make the idealist claims of justice and autonomy actual by politicizing the economy. This gesture by Marx “subject[ed] thought [and, by extension, politics] . . . to the inexorable tyranny of necessity, to the ‘iron law’ of productive forces in society.” Arendt instead seeks a path that would extend political freedom without erasing the difference between politics and the economy. Though she generally lacks a normative model that can rival Marx’s notion of revolution, there are hints in this volume of forms of Arendtian politics that could challenge capitalism.

Arendt finds a “mute violence” ubiquitous in democracies no less than in dictatorships.

Arendt places her faith in an adamant commitment to the existence of contingency in history, which she calls natality. She had already developed this concept in her early work on Saint Augustine, whom she often quotes: “Man was created, before which no one was, so that a beginning could be.” Every birth, she argues, brings the possibility for a fundamentally different world. This is true for the births of people no less than those of ideas and social forms. This is a further disagreement with Marx, of course. Where she finds history filled with moments of contingency, in which the judgment and actions of individuals had great consequences, Marx sees epiphenomena masking the fundamental tensions guiding history.

Natality is the condition of human plurality; and politics . . . is necessary only because man is a being who is only in the plural as long as he is alive. . . . As long as we live, and no matter what kind of life we lead, we cannot avoid the unpredictability of human actions in which the only thing we can foretell is not the actual outcome of the process which we have started, but that every good deed, done for no matter which cause or motive, will make the world a little better, and every bad deed, done for no matter which sublime end, will immediately make the world  a little worse, just as every great deed will here and now raise the level of human existence, show for better and worse what man is capable of.

Thus the normative task Arendt elaborates is an individual responsibility for the world manifested in the collaborative activity of political life. The revolution of natality is one in which all, mutually, take responsibility for the world, where judgment is exercised in public discourse on political questions.

This is a considerably different political program than “Workers of the World, Unite!” Yet she implicitly agrees with much of that slogan. Perhaps the closest we can come to a meeting of Arendt and Marx is to imagine an Arendtian revision of the Marxist formula to seize the means of production. Arendt would argue that we instead ought to say, seize the means of exercising responsibility for the world. In the invocation of a great deed, Arendt holds out a hope for novelty, for the birth of something new that allows for political beginning. And in the present moment of apparently catastrophic climate change, where seemingly no politician either wants to take action or be held accountable, her notion of responsibility has an appeal, despite the word having often been tarnished by conservative diatribes.

Instead of the means of production, Arendt would have us seize the means of exercising responsibility for the world.

As this volume makes clear, Arendt’s struggle with Marx is a genuine one that ends at an impasse. She recognizes him as a companion, yet she mistrusts his ambivalence toward violence and his belief in a science of history. Marx and Arendt differ in many ways, but where the two concur offers a very modest politics: to collaborate and organize in public. For both Marx and Arendt, political change will happen only because people, no matter how humble their social status, come together, talk about what type of world they would like to live in, and strive to make it a reality.

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