Vol. 6 | The Modern Challenge to Tradition | Editorial Introduction

Karl Marx and the Tradition of Political Thought. The Broken Thread of Tradition

At the foot of a letter of September 17, 1952 from Princeton professor E. B. O. Borgerhoff, confirming the university’s invitation to lead the Christian Gauss Seminars the next year, Hannah Arendt made the following handwritten note, most likely to record the essence of a telephone conversation: “May 13 53: KM and the tradition of political thought.”1 This is the earliest record we have of the title that eventually graced Arendt’s Gauss seminars, and we find it again at the top of this curious typescript, paired with a subtitle “The broken thread of tradition.” This subtitle is one of the cancelled variants at the top of the first page of “Tradition and the Modern Age,” but can also be found (or at least the sense of it) in the New School course from March and April 1953: “Our Attitude toward tradition: No guidance, the thread is broken,”2 and the phrase appears in Arendt’s essay from July 1953 on “Religion and Politics.”3 Taking May 13 as a terminus ad quo for this text is thus not certain, since Arendt was clearly thinking in these terms much earlier, but represents a plausible starting point for understanding the formulation of this document.

The typescript format, with its wide left margin and single spacing, is unusual if not unprecedented in Arendt’s papers.4 While the format does not seem to correspond with any particular genre of text, the wide margin allowed Arendt to expand on various points without introducing new pages into the typescript. “The Broken Thread of Tradition” has extensive additions on pages 3, 5, 7, and 8. The elaboration on page 3, for instance, takes up a criticism of Eric Voegelin’s hypothesis that communism can be understood as a modern form of ancient Gnostic soteriological heresies that she articulates in the original version of “Religion and Politics,” but had had to cut from that presentation when she shortened it for delivery. This offers further support for an early August dating, though Voegelin was too durable a point of reference for Arendt for this to be conclusive.

More revealing is the status of the typeface, which makes “The Broken Thread of Tradition” particularly responsive to material philological consideration. About most of the typescripts that Arendt wrote during these months we can say little with respect to the machines on which they were produced. But a subset of these documents, among them “The Broken Thread of Tradition,” were written on a machine whose typeface has recognizable characteristics. The font in general is slightly smaller and less even than the majority of other typescripts, and has several further idiosyncrasies, among which are a lower case “d” with a damaged bowl and a lower case “a” that frequently drops below the baseline. In addition, the type-bar for the lower case “l” tilts forward, so that the top of the letter strikes the page more forcefully than the bottom. This characteristic is less uniform across the typescripts written on this machine, though no less regular: as the typewriter’s ribbon loses ink, the tilted letter becomes increasingly incomplete, until only the top part of the type-bar registers. 5 Various typed insertions in the Denktagebuch and a number of letters were also produced on this typewriter, which helps to date its use.

The fact that “Ideologie und Terror” was written on this machine in Europe indicates that this was Arendt’s portable typewriter in the years 1952-54, and that typescripts composed on it were written when she was away from her apartment on Morningside Drive in Manhattan. Outside of her European trip, this turns out to be two relatively brief periods during the years she was working on her book on tradition, namely the two vacations she spent in the summer of 1952 and 1953 in the resort town of Palenville, New York. Typewritten letters with location and date, the revisions of “Religion and Politics” made when we know that Arendt was there, and the words “Preliminary — Palenville 53” in Arendt’s hand on the first page of “The Modern Challenge to Tradition,” all confirm that this typewriter was one she used when she was vacationing at the Chestnut Lawn House in the Catskills. Material philology would thus indicate that “The Broken Thread of Tradition” was written in Palenville, either in late August and September 1952, or in late July and August 1953. A number of considerations point to the later period. The DT shows a renewed engagement with Marx beginning in November 1952, well after the first Palenville vacation, and includes a reconsideration of the eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach (DT 272), which is the only specific Marx reference in this text. In addition, remarks from December 1952 and January 1953 show Arendt working with the concept of tradition and Traditionsbruch intensively, and reflecting on the linear character of the tradition. “Der Faden der Tradition und das Band der Menschheit,” an entry from December 1952 runs in its entirety. Arendt’s long letter to Jaspers of May 13, 1953, where she mentions that she is working on her Princeton lectures “über Marx in der Tradition der politischen Philosophie” (AJa 252) also points in this direction.

A further material consideration supports the conclusion that “The Broken Thread of Tradition” was written in Palenville in 1953. Changes in the appearance of the imperfect lower case “l,” which track the depletion of the typewriter ribbon, imply a sequence among the texts composed on this machine that we do know were written at this time. The abbreviated version of “Religion and Politics,” typed in the first days of Arendt’s 1953 stay in Palenville, has complete lower case “l“s, though the “d” and the “a” leave no doubt it was produced on the portable machine. By August 14, 1953, however, the lower case “l”s in Arendt’s testy letter to Henry Kissinger rejecting his editorial work on “Religion and Politics” are all bottomless.6 By that date the ribbon has lost ink enough so that the letter now fails to register fully.

“The Broken Thread of Tradition” shows lower case “l“s on the first four pages that are unremarkable. After page 5, more and more of the “l”s are incomplete, so that we can conclude that the ribbon was in an intermediate state while Arendt was typing this document. This would mean that she wrote this text after the revisions of “Religion and Politics” in late July, but before the middle of August. The state of the ribbon also confirms that this is the earliest of the explicitly Gauss-related typescripts, since the others, both the “Palenville Fragment” and “Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought: the Modern Challenge to Tradition,” have the incomplete “l” that emerges here, or were, like the various New York fragments, written on a different machine entirely, presumably after Arendt’s return to New York. A final bit of evidence for the dating emerges from the contemporary correspondence. On August 8, responding to a request to alter the proposed title of the talk at New York University she was scheduled to deliver in November, and that would eventually become “The Breakdown of Authority,” she wrote: “I welcome your suggestion to change the emphasis in my lecture topics. May I propose as title for the first lecture: ‘The breakdown of Authority in the modern world’ or ‘The broken thread of Tradition’.”7 The lower case “l” in this typed letter is in precisely the intermediary state of variable incompleteness that characterizes the ribbon when the typescript of “The Broken Thread of Tradition” was produced.

The title and subtitle of this typescript, together with the material philological evidence dating it, its oral tone and use of abbreviations (“KM”), and its general posture of forestalling audience expectations, have led the editors to hypothesize that this is Arendt’s first attempt to formulate her ideas for the Princeton seminars, an initial reflection on Marx’s philosophical achievement in the light of totalitarianism’s absolute catastrophe. This early approach did not end up contributing directly to her eventual exposition, and does not appear to have held her attention long. At the same time, she did keep it, and so must have taken it to be substantial enough to preserve for later consultation. As a piece of theoretical exposition, it is in many respects unique among these papers.

James McFarland

HA to E. B. O. Borgerhoff, September 17, 1952. (CU, Princeton University, Princeton, N. J.)


“No doubt one of the chief characteristics of our present crisis is the breakdown of all authority and the broken thread of our tradition, but from this it does not follow that the crisis is primarily religious or has a religious origin.” See 226.


An untitled typescript (bearing the title “Tradition and the Modern Age” in Lotte Köhler’s handwriting), a talk at Notre Dame from 1950 on “Ideology and Propaganda,” a review of Franz Neumann’s “Concept of Political Freedom” all are typed in this way.


Other texts produced on this machine include the lecture version of “Ideologie und Terror,” the additions to the typescript of “Religion and Politics” prepared for Henry Kissinger’s Confluence, and “Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought: The Modern Challenge to Tradition,” as well as the pages of the “Palenville Fragment.”


See here.


HA to William Gruen, August 8, 1953. (CU, New York University, New York, N. Y.)