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

Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought: The Modern Challenge to Tradition

In pencil in the upper right-hand corner of the first page of this typescript, above the typed title and subtitle, are, in Arendt’s hand, the words “Preliminary Palenville 53.” Arendt resided in Palenville from at least 13 July, 1953, until August 16, as she informed William Gruen of NYU.1 After “The Broken Thread of Tradition,” this text represents her second attempt during these summer weeks to prepare for the Gauss Seminars in Princeton in the fall.

This hypothesis is supported by the material features of the manuscript, in particular, the fact that the bulk of it was produced on the “Palenville” typewriter after the tilted lower-case “l” had lost its lower extension in early August.2 In her August 16 letter to Gershom Scholem, toward the end of her Palenville residence, she would refer to the book on which she was working as “the modern challenge to tradition” (AScho, 385). The material traces thus date most of the initial composition to the days between 8 and 16 August, 1953.

The correspondence with Scholem (as well as a letter to her cousin Niuta Ghosh in India that also mentions the book) remind us as well that if the title of this typescript brings the text under the auspices of the Gauss seminars, its subtitle coincided with Arendt’s designation at that moment for the entire book on which she was working. The title holds the commitment to a public lecture on a particular thinker; the subtitle recalls Arendt’s expressed ambition to use the occasion to formulate a book with a vast theoretical horizon. This intention helps to explain why the text as we have it does not seem to be a lecture; not only are there none of the marginal arrows or bracketed passages that we find in her other lecture notes, not only do handwritten corrections indicate many paragraph-breaks that would be inaudible in a talk, but in pacing and tenor the exposition is closer to a book chapter than an oral presentation. Unlike her earlier attempt in “The Broken Thread of Tradition,” Arendt spends no time anticipating audience expectations or characterizing expository difficulties. Rather, she begins by announcing the historical termini of a continuous tradition. Between Aristotle’s definition of man as a dzoon politikon and Marx’s definition of man as an animal laborans a durable continuum of conceptual reflection on the activities that make us human can be recognized.

At least two separate compositional stages are indicated by the contrast between the thirty-four pages written in Palenville and ten pages written on a different typewriter, one without the incomplete lower-case “l,”3 presumably after Arendt’s return to Manhattan. While two of the non-Palenville pages, expanding on the preliminary discussion of forms of government and historical experience, occur early in the typescript, as its fifth and sixth pages, the eight other pages make up the start of a new section of the essay, marked by a Roman numeral II, which replaced an earlier three-page part II written in Palenville. (Arendt’s page numbers suggest she appended these three pages to the end of the typescript, though their content does not follow from page 35. Since they were in fact composed before the eight-page continuation, the editors have ignored this repagination and returned the pages to their original position immediately following page 27.) At some point after she had abandoned this text, Arendt repurposed two pages of this continuation, the thirty-eighth and thirty-ninth, as pages 13 and 14 of part “VI” of the Gauss material.

If the typewriters distinguish these later New York City additions from the original formulations, this is only the final and most easily recognized stage in a remarkably complicated series of reworking, elaborations, and rearrangements that can hardly be reconstructed conclusively. “The Modern Challenge to Tradition” displays Arendt’s montage practices with particular emphasis. The typescript contains pages that have been renumbered up to three different times, pages that have been assembled with adhesive tape from cut up fragments of earlier pages, as well as elaborations that expand on older remarks and eventually supersede the pages they originally supplemented. The original pagination suggests a seven-page foundational text of which very little has survived intact, but which led in Arendt’s initial expansions to clusters of pages with numbers subordinated to 4 (4a), 5 (5aa, 5b, 5c), and 6 (6a, 6b, 6c, 6e). Several other pages whose page numbers were always much higher must have been written after these pages were introduced into the typescript and the result renumbered.

On what was likely part of page 4 of the foundational layer, which is now the tenth page of the typescript, Arendt summarizes Marx’s terminal position in the tradition in three principled claims: that Labor is the Creator of Man, that Violence is the midwife of History, and that Nobody can be free who enslaves others. Though “The Broken Thread of Tradition” did not employ this epitomizing strategy, Arendt’s consideration of Marx there culminated in the last of these formulae, “nobody could be free who rules over others,” an aspect of Marx that had been the topic of an important DT entry from April 1953, on “Marx als Wasserscheide zwischen Vergangenheit und Gegenwart” (DT, 350), that analyzes that dictum. All of which makes notable the fact that in the Preface to the Gauss seminars, where Arendt repeats her characterization of Marx in terms of three basic statements, this final formula has disappeared, replaced by the famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. In “The Modern Challenge to Tradition” Marx’s pronouncement that philosophers must begin changing the world appears toward the end of the typescript, among the pages written outside of Palenville. While it would certainly be a mistake to imagine this shows Arendt changing her mind about Marx’s attitudes toward freedom, her eventual decision to foreground the change Marx demanded in the relation between thought and action and to allow the problem of freedom to recede from the surface of the exposition is certainly part of what rendered this text, in Arendt’s view, preliminary.

The theme of the periagōgē, or theoretical overturning of the tradition, exemplified by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as well as Marx, arises late in “The Modern Challenge to Tradition,” on its twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth pages. This motif becomes the expository hinge of “Tradition and the Modern Age,” and indeed, the one material connection between that typescript and this occurs at just this point. What follows this discussion of the tradition of reversals of tradition is a fragmentary twenty-ninth page on the relation of Hegel’s dialectic to Marx’s historical movement. Arendt has integrated the top of this page into “Tradition and the Modern Age,” fastening it to the bottom of that typescript’s eighteenth page. This half page is the only element of this preliminary formulation that reappears in a later text.

James McFarland

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


For more details on the “Palenville” typewriter, see here.


Marginal revisions on the fourteenth and twenty-seventh pages were also made with an undamaged typewriter, presumably at the same time.