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Hannah Arendt on Marx’s equivocal view of labour

Marx’s attitude toward labor, and that is toward the very center of his thought, has never ceased to be equivocal.

While it was an “eternal necessity imposed by nature” and the most human and productive of man’s activities, the revolution, according to Marx, has not the task of emancipating the laboring classes but of emancipating man from labor; only when labor is abolished can the “realm of freedom” supplant the “realm of necessity.”

For “the realm of freedom begins only where labor determined through want and external utility ceases,” where “the rule of immediate physical needs” ends.

Such fundamental and flagrant contradictions rarely occur in second-rate writers; in the work of the great authors they lead into the very center of their work.

In the case of Marx, whose loyalty and integrity in describing phenomena as they presented themselves to his view cannot be doubted, the important discrepancies in his work, noted by all Marx scholars, can neither be blamed upon the difference “between the scientific point of view of the historian and the moral point of view of the prophet” nor on a dialectical movement which needs the negative, or evil, to produce the positive, or good.

The fact remains that in all stages of his work he defines man as an animal laborans and then leads him into a society in which this greatest and most human power is no longer necessary.

We are left with the rather distressing alternative between productive slavery and unproductive freedom.

Hannah Arendt – The Human Condition

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