Thinking Without a Banister sounds like a freethinker’s slogan, a refusal of the supports of authority, tradition, and revealed faith. It recalls Hannah Arendt’s appreciation of Gotthold Lessing in the opening essay of Men in Dark Times, her book of essays from 1968. There, Arendt praises the German thinker’s untrammeled intelligence, which led to his rejection of Lutheran orthodoxy and embrace of Spinoza, the patron of freethinkers. Readers might expect a similar posture in this new volume of Arendt’s previously unpublished or uncollected essays, lectures, and interviews.
But the title in fact sounds a note of alarm, rather than triumph; it refers to the collapse of tradition and authority, which has made independent thought a perilous necessity rather than a bold choice. Arendt argues that liberation from older forms of oppression yielded equivocal results, some of them dire. Far from ensuring a golden age of freedom, the modern loss of tradition and authority created a vacuum that allowed a novel form of tyranny, the totalitarian state, to emerge and spread with the momentum of a natural disaster.
The decay of American institutions and the crisis of civil society make our moment an opportune one for Arendt scholarship. The writings collected in Thinking Without a Banister invite readers to reflect on the status of freedom in Western political thought, from antiquity to the modern era. We see these strains converge in the essay “Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought.” Writing at the height of the Cold War, Arendt addresses the role of freedom in Marx’s thought, searching for a link between his thought and Bolshevik tyranny. She proffers a rich, somewhat flawed analysis of Marx, whose thought stands in contrast with her own view of politics and freedom—a view preferable to his, but with its own peculiar difficulties.
For Arendt, Marx’s promotion of labor to the center of human life reflects the modern world’s departure from the Western philosophical tradition, which saw labor as humanity’s lowest activity. From a traditional perspective, labor arises from our bondage to necessity, to the inexorable cycle of life and death, whereas freedom belongs to the realm of politics, to reasoned deliberation among free citizens. Citizens craft the laws (nomoi) that define what the Greeks regarded as their crowning achievement: not technology or culture, but the polis. These laws stand above the cycle of necessity and bring something new and unexpected to the world. By defining labor as humanity’s “species-activity,” Marx accepts the bourgeois assimilation of all human activity to labor. Arendt concludes that he leaves no space for a traditional understanding of freedom: “When Marx made labor the most important activity of man, he was saying, in terms of the tradition, that not freedom but compulsion is what makes man human.” This is true but incomplete, for Marx does not draw his argument from “the terms of the tradition.” He rejects those terms and develops his own understanding of freedom and compulsion. His innovation puts him at odds not only with antiquity but also with modern principles of liberty, especially those codified in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Arendt does not follow the implications of Marx’s understanding of freedom and so misses, in my view, the strongest link between his thought and modern tyranny.
In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx removes the concept of freedom from the realm of politics and places it in the realm of labor, which has a remarkable ability to outrun necessity. Other animals “produce only when immediate physical need compels them to do so, while man produces even when he is free from physical need and truly produces only in freedom from such need.” Birds build nests and then abandon them after they serve their reproductive purpose. Human beings build factories and museums and telescopes, productions that far outstrip basic animal needs. Such labor constitutes our species-activity, and under capitalism humanity has made creative leaps no previous age could have imagined. As he puts it in The Communist Manifesto, the bourgeoisie
has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.
Yet people still experience labor as servitude, which exposes the central “contradiction” in capitalism: It creates conditions of freedom but reduces the mass of people to the level of necessity. The advent of socialism will not overturn capitalism’s achievements but will make them available to everyone, thus resolving the contradiction and removing necessity’s grip from labor.
How does this familiar narrative relate to modern tyranny? The answer becomes clear in light of Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question.” There he stages a frontal attack on the Rights of Man, contending that individual rights merely safeguard humanity’s alienation from its species-being. Rights to property and religion do not make people free. Instead, they guarantee isolation and direct us to self-serving pursuits and otherworldly delusions. In fact, true freedom requires the abolition of bourgeois rights and the corresponding split between the state and civil society.
In theory, the bourgeois state represents public life and so transcends civil society and its competing, privatized interests. Such transcendence is, for Marx, an illusion. With its guarantee of individual rights, the state surreptitiously serves private ends. Political deliberation is unmasked as ideology. The revolution Marx anticipates will erase the spurious distinction between private and public life, replacing bourgeois alienation with a seamless unity of individual people and their species-activity.
It is not difficult to see to the kinship between this view and modern tyranny. Older forms of tyranny maintain a separation between private and public realms; the tyrant wants to rule and prosper without interference, and those hoping to avoid trouble withdraw to private life. Marx, by contrast, seeks to abolish rights for the sake of freedom, a goal that is alarmingly compatible with the notion that other people can, in Rousseau’s awful phrase, force us to be free. Before such a possibility, realized already in the Reign of Terror, Marx leaves us defenseless.
By contrast, Arendt insists on a strong distinction between the political and the social, placing freedom on the side of politics. In her 1963 book On Revolution, she praises Jefferson’s idea of “public happiness,” and in her lecture on “Freedom and Politics,” collected in Thinking Without a Banister, she argues that in politics we have a chance to break free of necessity and create something new. Her public-social distinction has attracted criticism, and one can see why. When asked in a 1972 interview (“Hannah Arendt on Hannah Arendt”) to name political concerns that are not also social, she describes her experience of a New Hampshire town meeting at which participants debated the construction of a new bridge. Now, Tocqueville likewise praised the New England meetinghouse as a model of participatory democracy, but bridge construction seems an odd match for Arendt’s exalted view of politics. Here we notice a tension in her thought: On the one hand, politics promise freedom and miraculous new beginnings; on the other, they occupy a space so narrow it excludes the deepest concerns of human life.
Then again, perhaps we would benefit from a more constricted view of politics, one that does not expect political discourse to bear the weight of our deepest longings, to satisfy our need for identity, for community, for a perfect justice. In truth, the boundary between public and private life is artificial, the outcome of pragmatic judgment rather than metaphysical insight. Politics cannot provide (here Marx is correct) transcendence of the private realm and its competing interests. The distinction between public and private serves a more reasonable purpose: to safeguard liberty, which does not belong wholly to politics or to labor. I have in mind what Isaiah Berlin calls “negative freedom,” a modest achievement that nevertheless requires continual maintenance. What we seek to maintain is a free civil society, which brings us to the central problem of our time: What happens when the health of that society declines and a bewildered, atomized citizenry surrenders its concern for liberty? The danger is real and present. Solutions, alas, are much harder to see.
Richard T. Whittington serves as a priest for the diocese of Little Rock.