On the Stateless Question: Human Emancipation and the Right to Have Rights (Part Two) — Nicole Landry

[This is the second in a set of two posts on emancipation and the concept of the right to have rights by Nicole Landry. The first post is available here.]

Labour and Action, Nature and Emancipation

Thomas E. Wartenberg draws out two distinct readings of the concept of species-being, translated from the German Gattungswesen: species-creature, on the one hand, and species-essence, on the other. The former describes humans as naturally social animals–creatures (or beings) that necessarily live together with others of their species–while the latter engages the question of what makes the human species distinctly human. [1] Both readings are significant in Marx’s work, though Wartenberg focuses on the latter, arguing that Marx understands “labour in accordance with one’s own conscious deliberation” to be the human species-essence. [2] Labour, too, has a dual meaning in Marx, signifying that which falls into the realm of necessity–labour performed in order to ensure survival, which is understood to be a burden–as well as “positive, creative activity” through which “human beings actualize themselves as human beings”. [3] On Wartenberg’s reading, the labour that constitutes human species-essence is broadly defined as “free conscious activity”: its products, whatever they may be, are the result of conscious planning and imagination rather than simple instinct, giving it a distinctly human character. [4] Importantly, Wartenberg notes that this free conscious activity encompasses all manner of possible human activities, including contemplation, without privileging any one in particular as, so to speak, the “most human”. Instead, human species-essence lies in our capacity to produce and shape the world “in accordance with our own purposes”. [5]

As is implicit in Wartenberg, the identification of a fundamentally human activity (or genre of activities) carries correlative implications about the “human good”. In many philosophical traditions, thought is the quintessentially human activity and contemplation the essence of the “good life”. For Marx this good is similarly located in free conscious activity itself, specifically in the free “development of human energy” and the realization of the self through freely chosen productive activity. [6] Labour remains integral here, though emphatically not the labour of necessity. Although the realm of necessity remains significant as the basis upon which the realm of freedom can stand, emancipation from necessity and necessary labour is a precondition for freedom. [7] Put differently, the fulfillment of essential human needs is a necessary precondition for individual engagement in the liberating type of labour that facilitates self-actualization.

Norman Geras also takes up the relationship of needs to liberation and to human nature in Marx, noting that in The German Ideology Marx and Engels observe that human beings’ “‘needs, consequently their nature, and the method of satisfying their needs’ have always bound them into relations with one another”. [8] Moreover, far from being merely instrumental, these relations are a human need in themselves: social interaction is among the essential needs that Marx and Engels enumerate. In Wartenberg’s terms, this can be understood as a statement of human being as species-creature. Interestingly, Geras finds that Marx also includes a need “for a breadth and diversity of pursuit and hence of personal development” among those incorporated into a general human nature, although it does not fall into a category quite so essential as basic survival needs. [9] On this reading, then, the “free development of individuals” is not only a human good emerging from an essential capacity for creative labour; it is also a fundamental (and fundamentally) human need. [10] It belongs not only to the realm of freedom but also to the realm of necessity; labour coerced by necessity thus “sustain[s] the life of individuals [only] ‘by stunting it'”. [11]

Terry Leahy also engages with The German Ideology on this point, contending that its materialism ought not to be read as a decisive break from the younger Marx’s humanism. He highlights the text’s valorization of the free development of human capacities (as in the famous passage describing communism as allowing one to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner … without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman, or critic”) as continuous with Marx’s earlier ideas about human nature and the “good life”. [12] He also frames the centrality of material interests to human behaviour described by Marx as an element of his conception of human nature—specifically, as the “animal needs” Marx recognizes in his earlier writing. [13] Under capitalism, man is free to express and pursue this animal element of his nature, but its distinctly human elements are suppressed. Leahy also identifies an additional human capacity in Marx: beyond those associated with labour, humans have the capacity to understand each other as ends in themselves rather than merely as means to the end of survival. [14] It is this capacity that appears to be alienated by the state and the “lion’s skin” of the citizen, according to Marx’s critique outlined above.

Arendt addresses the question of human essence and the related concept of the vita activa in The Human Condition. In its first chapter, she distances her subject from notions of human nature, understanding the latter as enumerating “essential characteristics of human existence in the sense that without them this existence would no longer be human”. [15] The human condition, by contrast, consists of those factors that condition human existence, though never absolutely. [16] Nevertheless, I consider it possible and helpful to map the concept of species-being, including its iterations as species-creature and species-essence, onto Arendt’s analysis of the human condition, particularly with respect to the vita activa. This, in Arendt’s terms, is “human life in so far as it is actively engaged in doing something” (to be contrasted with pure contemplation), and is divided in her work into three components: labour, work, and action. [17] For Arendt, labour is reproductive, consisting of the activity necessary to biologically produce and sustain life. Work moves a step beyond this, “producing an ‘artificial’ world of things” in which we live and which outlives us. Finally, action “corresponds to the human condition of plurality”, producing humanity’s political life. [18] Each of these is present, to some degree, in Marx’s understanding of human nature and capacities above: quite clearly, Arendt’s concept of labour aligns with the realm of necessity and the animal dimension of human nature, and her concept of work aligns more or less with productive labour in Marx, encompassing creative, self-actualizing labour so long as its products are material. Arendt’s concept of action, I contend, aligns with those types of “free conscious activity” whose products are not material: as Leahy points out, part of what makes creative labour rewarding is the feeling that its products are useful to others; this also applies to shared ideas and other immaterial “products”, and this sociable dimension of labour maps well onto the necessarily relational faculty of action. [19] To a study of human emancipation, I consider this faculty to be the most significant.

Although Arendt leans away from the notion of human nature, she describes action as the only component of the vita activa that must occur between or among men. In contrast to labour and work, which can be performed in isolation (although the material world produced by work is admittedly shared), action is necessarily political in her terms, depending “entirely … upon the constant presence of others”. [20] The value she assigns to action is also bound up with her Aristotelian understanding of the human as a political animal, distinct from other species in that respect. Her consequent distinction between the social and the political is worth noting here: while many animals are social in the sense that they live with and rely on others of their species for survival—they are species-creatures, in Wartenberg’s terms—humanity is unique in its political organization. This, for Arendt, is the context in which action is possible, and it is for this reason that the conditions of statelessness and rightlessness are so significant.

Arendt’s valorization of action as a crucial part of human life and activity is also evident in her writing on rights: at the core of the “calamity” of rightlessness is the deprivation “not of the right to freedom, but of the right to action” and the loss of a “place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective”. [21] It lies in expulsion from political life, which, crucially, Arendt equates with “expulsion from humanity altogether”. [22] Further, as we have seen, the right to have rights proposes the fundamental right to “live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions”, with membership in a political community providing such a framework. [23] One may interpret all of this as supportive of a reading of action as something approaching human species-essence for Arendt. However, even if this is not the case, these passages demonstrate that action lies at the heart of any life that is meaningfully human in her view. This is every bit as significant to the question at hand as an explicit conception of human nature would be, since it is still concerned with specifically human needs and the conditions of life that meet them in a substantive way. That said, it is also worth noting Arendt’s emphasis on, and particular understanding of, human dignity as she sets out the problem of rightlessness. She writes: “Man, it turns out, can lose all so-called Rights of Man without losing his essential quality as man, his human dignity. Only the loss of a polity itself expels him from humanity.” [24] This kind of expulsion not only damages but revokes one’s human dignity, on Arendt’s reading. The element of recognition by others is evidently of critical importance here, as it is bound up with the capacity for action.

“The Political” and Human Community

Taking into account Arendt’s criticism of the nation-state and her recognition of both the social nature of the human being as species-creature and the importance of community to human life and well-being in both texts I have examined, as well as the understanding of the political described above, one can see that an alternative to the reading of the right to have rights as a right to citizenship in a nation-state is both necessary and appropriate. Moreover, Arendt herself seems to acknowledge the limitations of relying on the nation-state (or a “community” of nation-states) to guarantee the right to have rights through citizenship:

It is by no means certain whether this [the guarantee of every human’s right to belong to humanity] is possible. For, contrary to the best-intentioned humanitarian attempts to obtain new declarations of human rights from international organizations, it should be understood that this idea transcends the present sphere of international law which still operates in terms of reciprocal agreements and treaties between sovereign states; and, for the time being, a sphere that is above the nations does not exist. Furthermore, this dilemma would by no means be eliminated by the establishment of a “world government”. [25]

She also acknowledges the limits of the political itself and of political equality, noting the problematic tendency in “highly developed political communities” towards homogeneity, which emerges out of the state’s difficulty in dealing with difference. [26] It is important here to note that plurality is also a fundamentally important element of the human condition to Arendt–indeed, it necessarily corresponds with action:

Action would be an unnecessary luxury, a capricious interference with general laws of behavior, if men were endlessly reproducible repetitions of the same model, whose nature or essence was the same for all and as predictable as the nature or essence of any other thing. Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live. [27]

Plurality, then, clearly means more than multitude; it refers, crucially, to diversity. This can also be seen in her writing on genocide. She characterizes the Holocaust as “a crime against humanity, perpetrated upon the body of the Jewish people”, arguing that its great evil lay in the fact that it was “an attack upon human diversity as such”. [28] This irreparably harms not only the group affected but the entire human community: the loss of the group’s culture, knowledge, and other unique contributions is suffered by humanity as a whole.

Based on Marx’s analysis, one may be inclined to conclude that these conflicting values–plurality, on the one hand, and political life, on the other–produce an irresolvable tension in Arendt’s thought, the correct escape from which lies in abandoning the latter. I disagree. On the contrary, I submit that this tension is not paralyzing but rather productive. As Ayten Gündoğdu points out, Arendt’s methodology in “Decline of the Nation-State” is an aporetic one, oriented towards highlighting contradictions in so-called “basic” concepts (in this case, universal human rights) in order to prompt their reconceptualization. [29] Rights, as we have seen, are not categorically doomed on Arendt’s reading but require rethinking. Similarly, I suggest that the tension between plurality and political life that emerges in Arendt’s thought indicates a need to rethink “the political”. This includes expanding its possible meaning beyond the state, either as Arendt or as Marx conceives of it.

Underlying both Arendt’s and Marx’s conceptions of meaningful human life is an investment in the dignity and flourishing of the individual. In Marx, this involves free, self-directed labour through which one is able to contribute to shaping the material world. [30] Although this most closely resembles work in Arendt, it also contains an element of action insofar as it includes intellectual labour, the sharing of which is active but not necessarily bound to physical things. This kind of labour in Marx (material or otherwise) is also dependent upon community: individuals are able to develop their unique capacities as a result of social organization, and it is in sharing them that they attain a large part of their significance. For Arendt, the individual necessarily flourishes only among others, in a “social texture” that affords “a distinct place in the world”–a place in which, again, one’s “opinions [are] significant and actions effective”. [31] In both cases, the capacity to (as Arendt puts it) “act and change the world” is paramount and demands a life in common with others. [32]

In contrast to political emancipation, Marx’s concept of human emancipation necessitates changing the conditions that produce the forces from which humans are to be emancipated–rather than simply enshrining a formal right to or against something through the state, it demands substantive change. Read in light of this, Arendt’s right to have rights would appear meaningless if framed as a right to citizenship in a nation-state, especially if such nation-states remain responsible for its enforcement. An unqualified right to inclusion is antithetical to the notion of state sovereignty, which, as Patrick Hayden notes, insists upon “an unimpeachable right of exclusion”. [33] Hayden also writes that “for Arendt, sovereignty represents a mistaken conception of freedom precisely because sovereignty seeks to fix and delimit movement.” [34] It is the nation-state system itself that produces the condition of statelessness; emancipation from it thus requires emancipation from the nation-state form altogether. The same holds true for the fulfillment of the right to have rights.


As we have seen above, political belonging conceived of in terms of citizenship in a nation-state is quite clearly incapable of substantively addressing the problem of statelessness and concomitant rightlessness. On the contrary, the nation-state form is productive of it. At the same time, as Arendt observes, it is not clear that simply eliminating borders would eliminate the problem either. Reading the early Marx alongside Arendt on this matter helps to elucidate the kind of emancipation at work in the various versions of rights with which Arendt engages, as well as the need for an approach to the problem of “expulsion from humanity” that reaches beyond the state form in understanding political community. That Marx’s concept (and Wartenberg’s conception) of species-being overlaps in a number of ways with Arendt’s analysis of action and human dignity further supports the utility of reading the two together.

Although Arendt herself was no Marxist, it is a mistake for Marxists to dismiss her work. Her proposal of a right to have rights gives voice to certain normative underpinnings of Marx’s critique, asserting in rights language that no human being should be deprived of the very condition that makes life meaningfully human–namely, living in community. At the same time, Marx illuminates the obstacles to realizing fully a right to have rights within the framework of the bourgeois state and under capitalism. Between the two, one can locate an approach to the question of rights and the value of rights language that is attentive both to their ideological value in the short and long terms and to their practical limitations.

[1] Thomas E. Wartenberg, “‘Species-Being’ and ‘Human Nature’ in Marx”, 5 (1982) Human Studies 77, 79.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 79–80.

[4] Ibid., 84–85.

[5] Ibid., 79.

[6] Marx, quoted in ibid., 84.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Norman Geras, Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend (London: New Left Books, 1983), 69 (emphasis in original).

[9] Ibid., 72–73.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 73.

[12] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The German Ideology” [1845], in Marx/Engels Collected Works, vol. 5 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976), 19; also available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm.

[13] Terry Leahy, “Two Examples of Humanist Ethics”, in Terry Leahy, Humanist Realism for Sociologists (New York: Routledge, 2016), 122.

[14] Ibid., 133.

[15] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 9–10.

[16] Ibid., 11.

[17] Ibid., 22.

[18] Ibid., 7.

[19] Leahy, “Two Examples of Humanist Ethics”, 133.

[20] Arendt, The Human Condition, 22.

[21] Hannah Arendt, “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man”, in The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, 1985 [1951]), 267, 296.

[22] Ibid., 297.

[23] Ibid., 296.

[24] Ibid., 297 (emphasis added).

[25] Ibid., 298–99 (emphases added).

[26] Ibid., 301.

[27] Arendt, The Human Condition, 8.

[28] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin, 2006 [1963]), 268–69.

[29] See Ayten Gündoğdu, “‘Perplexities of the Rights of Man’: Arendt on the Aporias of Human Rights”, 11 (2011) European Journal of Political Theory 4.

[30] Wartenberg, “‘Species-Being’ and ‘Human Nature'”, 79.

[31] Arendt, “Decline of the Nation-State”, 293, 296.

[32] Ibid., 301.

[33] Patrick Hayden, “From Exclusion to Containment: Arendt, Sovereign Power, and Statelessness”, 3 (2008) Societies Without Borders 248, 257.

[34] Ibid., 266.

Nicole Landry is a master’s student in law and legal studies at Carleton University.