Arendt & Marx

“I would like to try to rescue Marx’s honor in your sight”
–Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers, 1950

Hannah Arendt was not a fan of Karl Marx, but she took his writing very seriously. There are no less than three volumes of Das Kapital in her personal library at Bard College. She famously opens her chapter on “Labor” in The Human Condition declaring: “In the following chapter, Karl Marx will be criticized.” In her lectures on Marx, which were recently published for the first time in Jerome Kohn’s edited volume Thinking Without a Banister, Arendt begins by noting: “It has never been easy to think and write about Karl Marx.”

A newly published volume of Arendt’s essays

Reading Arendt on Marx one senses a deep ambivalence. She is both situating him within the tradition of western political philosophy, while seriously considering what elements of totalitarianism might lurk beneath the surface of his writings. And she acknowledges that there is a fine line between Marx the man and the many Marxisms that spring forth from readings of his work.

Arendt recognizes that Marx was a great thinker. Her central criticism of Marx is that he elevates the laboring activity as the fundamental human capacity of man. She summarizes Marx with the sentence: “Labor is the creator of man.” For Arendt, labor is that which binds us to nature. It is the physical activity that keeps us bounded to our condition as living animals. For her, the good life cannot come from the laboring activity itself. We must be liberated from labor and freed to participate in the public realm.

Arendt’s writing is fundamentally about spaces of freedom and freedom from tyranny; Marx’s writing in her reading is fundamentally about entrenching man in his bodily existence, the opposite of freedom. She was critical of the ways in which consumerism were coming to define contemporary society. But she was incredibly skeptical of the ideological, determinant impulse in Marx’s writing. Especially since it was bounded to an idea of violence and history, which for Arendt directly translated to political terror. Ultimately Arendt does not blame Marx for the rise of totalitarianism, but she sees something in his formalism that makes his ideas susceptible to ideologues. The key concepts in Marx’s work — the laboring activity itself, the necessity of violence, the inevitability of history — all played themselves out on the world stage of the 20th century. Labor, violence, and history for Arendt all belong to the order of totalitarianism.

The unfinished Marx Project was part of Arendt’s attempt at understanding the phenomenal appearance of totalitarianism in the 20th century. The opening essay in the edited volume Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought begins by thinking about Marx as the break in the thread of tradition. Arendt is critical of those who try to locate Marx’s writings in line with Lenin and Stalin. One cannot accuse Marx of being the father of totalitarian domination any more than Plato or Aristotle, because Marx’s philosophy emerges from the great tradition. She writes, “Very few of those who yield to this line of argument seem to be aware that to accuse Marx of totalitarianism amounts to accusing the Western tradition itself of necessarily ending in the monstrosity of this novel from of government. Whoever touches Marx touches the tradition of Western thought…”

Arendt says that we have to take Marx seriously, because he was trying to grapple with the fundamental crises of the modern age: the problems of labor and history. This is where the significance of his thinking lies for Arendt. He was fixedly attentive to the political, economic, and social questions of his historical moment. It is not that Marx’s writing broke the tradition of Western political philosophy and opened up space for totalitarianism. Instead, she writes it is that “One might argue that the thread of our tradition was broken, in the sense that our traditional political categories were never meant for such a situation, when, for the first time in our history, political equality was extended to the labor classes.”

Marx saw that labor was undergoing a fundamental transformation. The sources of wealth were changing, and so too were the origins of social values. All men in capitalist society are sooner or later transformed into laborers. Marx saw the laboring class as an underprivileged group engaged in a fight for liberation and social justice. Arendt says that what he failed to see was that this passion for liberation and social justice is only applicable to individuals in the modern era, and not to any one social group. In Arendt’s reading of Marx she saw not just the condition of labor, but the corresponding social values that would come to define a society characterized by the laboring activity. In Marx’s elevation of labor, Arendt saw the erasure of all other occupations, vocations, and human activities.

Marx took his determinist vision of history from Hegel, and Arendt reiterates that despite the problems with this framework, it only proves that Marx is deeply indebted to the tradition of Western thought. The consequence of this is important, because Marx then becomes the link in the broken thread of tradition that collapsed authority in the 20th century. He is the thinker we can look back to in order to think about how totalitarianism came into existence. He is not the father of totalitarianism, but his work is a kind of signpost we need to slow down to read, in order to understand where we are going. Arendt writes,

“For us totalitarianism necessarily has become the central event of our times and, consequently, the break in tradition fait accompli. Because Marx concerned himself with the few new elementary facts for which the tradition itself did not provide a categorical framework, his success or failure therefore enables us to judge the success or failure of the tradition itself in regard to these facts, even before its moral, legal, theoretically, and practical standards, together with it political institutions and forms of originations, broke down spectacularly. That Marx still looms so large in our present world is indeed the measure of his greatness. That he could prove of use to totalitarianism (thought certainly he can never be said to have been its ‘cause’) is a sign of the actual relevance of his thought, even though at the same time it is also the measure of his ultimate failure.”

In this passage we see Arendt’s praise for Marx’s thinking, and her ambivalence toward his ideas. His greatness was his attunement to the changing world that he lived in. And this is the greatest virtue a political thinker can possess.


Samantha Rose Hill, Assistant Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, and Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Studies at Bard College