All that is solid

Salvador Dalí, Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man

This letter from the current London Review of Books offers the clearest explanation I’ve seen of one of Karl Marx’s most famous phrases:

Richard J. Evans’s comment on Jonathan Sperber’s attempt to find a better translation of Marx’s phrase ‘Alles ständische und stehende verdampft,’ usually rendered ‘All that is solid melts into air,’ pinpoints a particular difficulty in translating the German term Stand (LRB, 23 May). Sperber’s preferred version – ‘Everything that firmly exists and all the elements of the society of orders evaporate’ – is, well, frankly hideous. On the other hand it is a lot more accurate than the elegant version it seeks to replace. The words Stand and its adjective ständisch have been variously translated as ‘status’, ‘estate’, ‘estate-type’ and now here as ‘a society of orders’. None of these captures what Marx is talking about here, which is inequality organised on a basis other than class or market. For Marx the problem of the emancipation of the Jews was that it would ‘free’ them only to enter an unequal, class-based world and, in so doing, would dissolve what was distinctive in a Jewish way of life, whatever value you might place on that. Even more than Marx, Max Weber contrasted status-based (ständisch) inequality with market-based divisions. A status group (Stand) has a distinctive way of life, which is regarded in a particular way, and is reflected in legal provisions and even in clothes or diet. An example in our contemporary world might be children: we think of them as fully human yet somehow as a different order of beings from adults, with a different legal position and different preoccupations. To some degree, gender divisions too are ständische differences. For both Marx and Weber what mattered was that the sweeping away of the old order – the ancien regime of, er, ‘social orders’ – is at first experienced as emancipation, only for the reality to dawn that what replaces it are different forms of exploitation and oppression and new social identities grounded solely in market position: in buying or selling labour-power. The German term Stand is first cousin to the English word ‘standing’, and both Marx’s and Weber’s point was that modernity erodes all identities, honour and relationships in the acid of commercial exchange, leaving few of us really happy with where we stand.

Jem Thomas
Bristol

Image:
Salvador Dalí,
Geopoliticus child watching the birth of the new man, 1943
(click for source
)

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