Let me preface by saying that my German is not good, so if I am way off here, I hope someone who is more fluent than I will set me right. But I’m writing this as a kind of follow-up on last week’s post about Karl Polanyi’s effect on historians. I’m not going to tie the two posts together too explicitly as yet, but I think you’ll see where they link up.
The other day I was writing about a book that made use of the famous phrase from The Communist Manifesto “all that is solid melts into air,” and I thought to look up the original German, which is “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft.”
It struck me immediately that the conventional translation of this line is a bit paltry. There is an obvious play here in “Ständische und Stehende.” What is being evoked is not “solidity,” but rather “standing,” as in social standing. But that is not its only connotation: in German (as in English or Latin) “standing” is inflected with that other range of meanings related to “stand”—those that associate standing with stasis, with being stationary or even stagnant. (This overlap or confluence of meanings may be clearer in Latin: sto, stare, steti, status are the principle parts of the verb “to stand.”)
Well, perhaps you’ll say, so what? No one has ever accused me of an allergy to pedantry, but I think this is not just a case of the quibbles. On the contrary, the common (“All that is solid…”) translation has, I want to argue, produced a quite serious misunderstanding of Marx and Engels’s meaning among English speakers, and that misunderstanding has radiated out well beyond self-identified Marxists and shaped broader conceptions of how capitalism has changed society and how capitalist societies differ from pre-capitalist societies.
Think about the difference between saying that an object is solid and saying that it is standing. Solidity is related to density—its antonym is hollow—and it evokes (in my mind) a connotative register of stability and weight, of imperturbability. What is solid is durable, is unlikely—apart from some extreme and unusual force—to be destroyed or transformed. It is, if not permanent, at least very unlikely to change.
Now, what about “Ständische und Stehende?” Neither “standing” nor “stationary” have that same sense of permanence or durability; within either concept is the seed of change—“standing” posits a future change of posture, and “stationary” connotes a kind of precarious stagnation, easily disturbed into motion. “Standing” in the sense of a social order already imagines a shakeup: mutability is incorporated at a conceptual level. We use the phrase “status quo” precisely because the expectation of a subsequent change (or the knowledge of a prior change) is already baked into “status.”
Medieval or ancient societies that truly imagined their arrangement to be perpetual tended to use other words to signify the divisions of society: rank, order, degree. (Again, I’d like a specialist to verify my hunch here.) Chaucer tells us in the prologue to The Canterbury Tales that he is going to describe to us each pilgrim because he “thinketh it acordaunt to resoun, / To telle yow al the condicioun / Of ech of hem, so as it semed me, / And whiche they weren, and of what degree.” “Condicioun” is their outward appearance, and even if it reflects their underlying “degree,” the latter is presumed to be immutable while the former is not.
That is not the presumption of Marx and Engels, however; in fact, they emphasize the fact that no system of social ranks or divisions is permanent (or solid) by pointing to prior arrangements: “In den früheren Epochen der Geschichte finden wir fast überall eine vollständige Gliederung der Gesellschaft in verschiedene Stände, eine mannigfaltige Abstufung der gesellschaftlichen Stellungen.” By using “Stand” and “Stellung,” but they underline the plasticity of these systems of gradations. Even more, they emphasize that humans have not had only one kind of social ordering before capitalism, but many.
Translating Marx and Engels’s passage as “All that is solid” makes the “melting” or “evaporating” caused by capitalism suggests something different: it suggests that what came before capitalism was—above all—not fluid. It was built well, it was stable. “All that is solid” produces a sentence and a reading of capitalism’s emergence that is much more dramatic. It takes a lot of energy to melt something solid, and things that are solid are not supposed to melt! (More on melting in a second.)
If, on the other hand, we were to translate the passage as “Every [social] standing and all that is stationary,” we still get a sense of tremendous transformation, but not necessarily something unexpected.
The previous sentence in the Manifesto supports this reading, I think: “Alle festen eingerosteten Verhältnisse mit ihrem Gefolge von altehrwürdigen Vorstellungen und Anschauungen werden aufgelöst…” “Fest” is “firm” or “solid,” but “eingerostet” is “rusty,” again emphasizing change and even stagnation. That is doubled in the lovely last part of the sentence: “alle neugebildeten veralten, ehe sie verknöchern können.” All that is novel expires even before it can ossify.
Now what about “melt?” “Verdampfen” isn’t “melt,” although “melt into air” is a rich phrase and much better. But here again we run into some trouble—of an admittedly technical nature—if we start the sentence with “All that is solid.” Verdampfen is “to evaporate,” which isn’t what the process of a solid melting into air is called. That is sublimation. Even allowing for some poetic license, there isn’t really any reason why Marx and Engels were thinking about the quite rare process of sublimation instead of the quite common process of evaporation—the transformation of a liquid into a gas.
What Marx and Engels are saying in this passage is that capitalism clarifies by continuously boiling away the palliatives of non-market values with which people try to soften or dilute the harsh judgments of the profit motive. Those values never have time to totally congeal before capitalism causes them to evaporate; they never solidify in the first place before they return to the air from which they condensed. Let us not talk about capitalism “eroding” or “melting” social solidarities, because those solidarities were never solid to begin with.
That is the only way, I think to read the sentence as a whole, which emphasizes not some sort of capitalist destruction of a permanent way of life, but of capitalism’s ability to dispel the myths that could interfere with its operation: “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft, alles Heilige wird entweiht, und die Menschen sind endlich gezwungen, ihre Lebensstellung, ihre gegenseitigen Beziehungen mit nüchternen Augen anzusehen.”
Typically, “alles Heilige wird entweiht” is translated as “all that is holy is profaned,” but it takes a weird reading of Marx and Engels to imagine them unsettled by the desecration of “holy” things. A better reading might be “all that is holy is deconsecrated” or even “disenchanted.” “Profaned” means “defiled” and carries a sense of violation which seems wholly out of character. But “deconsecrated/disenchanted” accords with the final part of the sentence, which tells us that capitalism forces us to confront things as they really are, forces us to face each other with nothing between us but capitalism itself.
That is, of course, not something they endorse, but it is inaccurate to detect in this sentence a wistfulness for the credulous mist that capitalism is dispelling. Yet so many historians—guided by the conventional translation—have used it as a kind of lament for the world of social solidarity, “the world we have lost” in Peter Laslett’s phrase—the moral economy, the pre-capitalist Gemeinschaft. It requires a misreading of the broader context of the phrase to get there, but it starts with “All that is solid.”
 Interestingly, “degree”—like “standing”—has its root in a Latin word related to the foot: gradus, meaning either pace or step. But the meaning it carries has a great deal more to do with “step” as in a part of a staircase than it does with walking. However, it is not surprising that a synonym for one’s social standing or one’s degree is also one’s “social footing.”