U.S. Intellectual History Blog

All that Is Solid… Is Maybe Not So Solid: The Repercussions of a Translation

Editor's Note

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.[1] 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.”[2] “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.”


[1] I later found that Richard Evans’s LRB review of Jonathan Sperber’s Marx biography makes this point: the review is behind a paywall, but a letter in the LRB expands on Evans here.

[2] 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.”

15 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thanks to Bill Fine, I was able to read the passage I mentioned in note 1 above from the Richard Evans review of Jonathan Sperber’s Marx biography. It turns out that my interpretation of the original passage is quite close to Sperber’s, which can be read here.

  2. Andy,
    An interesting post.

    Regrettably can’t comment on the strictly linguistic issues as my German is basically non-existent, but I’d like to make a couple of points. First, assuming that you’re right about the common translation not being a good one, it may be too late to dislodge it. It’s been repeated a lot, and Marshall Berman’s 1982 book taking the “all solid” phrase as its title is fairly well known.

    Second, you suggest that the “all solid” translation has misled commenters and readers into thinking that Marx and Engels were expressing wistfulness about “the world we have lost.” But has the translation actually misled people in this way? To put it perhaps too bluntly, can anyone with even a dim memory of having read The Communist Manifesto in school possibly think that Marx and Engels were nostalgic about the vanished pre-capitalist world? Doesn’t the Manifesto, in some passage or other, praise capitalism and bourgeois society for having swept away what Marx refers to as “medieval rubbish”? (Or is that in The 18th Brumaire or somewhere else?)

    Now it’s true that some Marxists (or Marxian-influenced) writers, such as E.P. Thompson, do wax eloquent about the moral economy of a pre-capitalist (or nascently capitalist) society in which the notion of a “just price” can be found (see e.g. Thompson’s classic article “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century”). But as for Marx and Engels themselves, my impression is that they were quite uninterested in singing the virtues of pre-capitalist societies (though they may do so on rare occasion), whether those pre-capitalist values are seen as solid and permanent, or, as you put, “never solid to begin with.”

    If I were interested in finding out what it was like to be a peasant or artisan or town-dweller or vagabond or monk or nun or whatever in a particular part of Europe in the high Middle Ages (say, circa 1200 or so), and specifically what kinds of economic and/or social arrangements governed one’s existence, and whether they seemed permanent and fixed by a divinely ordained dispensation or open to some kind of challenge under certain circumstances, I would not turn to Marx and Engels for the answers. I just don’t think they’re very interested in those questions.

    Anyway, thank you for the post and look forward to the more explicit tie-in with the previous one.

  3. On reflection, my comment above is probably a bit too broad-brush. (Part of the problem is that it’s been a long time since I read Marx.) The mature Marx presents himself as a scientist but passion and moral judgments come through anyway, sometimes sharpened by or reflected in his language and literary style, as R. P. Wolff among others points out (some of Wolff’s youtube lectures on Marx repay watching). Probably fair to say that Marx did deplore the separation of the artisan from his tools and control over his work entailed by the capitalist production process, and of course there are detailed descriptions in Capital of the oppressive conditions under which factory workers labored (setting up implicit contrasts with what came before). But there are also Marx’s fairly derogatory references to the peasantry. So a good deal may depend on which Marx work one happens to be reading, what mood one catches him in, and perhaps even which translation.

    • Louis,
      That’s a really important correction. I should have been more precise: most historians who fetishize the “world we have lost” are not using Marx and Engels to ground their account of pre-capitalist society. What I see occurring is more of a generalized shift from “Marx as an analyst of capitalism” to “Marx as a prophet of modernity”–very much in the way Marshall Berman did (as you note in your comment). It’s not so much “pre-capitalist” society that they lament the loss of as it is the erosion of the face-to-face communities under the wheels of modernity and “the market.” “All that is solid melts into air” does double duty, there: it’s a statement about capitalism and a sentiment about modernity–at least in the way they have appropriated it.

  4. Andy Seal’s complex and fascinating meditation on the problematic Parsons translation of “All that is solid melts into air” is a wonderful example of how close reading, with particular attention to tropes, can enrich our practice of intellectual history. (There should be a nod here to the importance of Hayden White’s lifelong effort to get us to read non-fiction texts in a sophisticated way.) Anyway, there is another influential misreading of another German text translated by Talcott Parsons that should also be mentioned. I refer to Parson’s translation of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism where he renders Weber’s well-known “stahlhartes Gehäuse”as “iron cage.” In History and Theory, Vol. 40, No. 2 (May, 2001), 153-169, Peter Baehr has suggested that the translation should be something more like “shell as hard as steel”, a translation that has more frightening connotations than “iron cage.” In this article, Baehr also points out that the “iron cage” translation has its own power and has taken on a life of its own, a point Andy makes as well. Finally, I should add that in Chapter 13 (“Ideology and Terror”) of the 1958 edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt refers several times to totalitarian terror as “an iron band”(“ein eisernes Band”) that compresses the diversity of human beings into one giant Human Being (“who makes out of many the One…”). See Origins, 2nd ed(1958), 466. Arendt did not share Karl Jasper’s near deification of Max Weber, but there is undoubtedly some anxiety of influence at work in Arendt’s formulation .

    • Richard,
      Thank you so much for making this connection to the article on Weber–and the further connection to Arendt. They are both very useful, and I will be sure to check out Baehr’s article! And thank you for the kind words!

  5. Just to note that “all that is solid” is not Parsons’ translation. It’s in the 1888 translation by Samuel Moore.

  6. Andy, I hate to be dim, but it can’t be helped. I have no German and no immediate prospects of acquiring it, and your many references to the German phrasing / wordplay of this passage might as well be written in Sanskrit for me. So I’m wondering if you could add (maybe in comments?) a three-fold reading aid: the whole passage whose meaning you’re discussing, the whole disputed translation of same, and then how you would translate this sentence or set of sentences.


    • Hi L.D.,
      No problem! Well, to be honest, I don’t want to embarrass myself by trying to translate the whole paragraph, so I guess that’s a problem, but hopefully the German original and most common English translation side-by-side will help.

      Here is the whole paragraph in the German original:

      Die Bourgeoisie kann nicht existieren, ohne die Produktionsinstrumente, also die Produktionsverhältnisse, also sämtliche gesellschaftlichen Verhältnisse fortwährend zu revolutionieren. Unveränderte Beibehaltung der alten Produktionsweise war dagegen die erste Existenzbedingung aller früheren industriellen Klassen. Die fortwährende Umwälzung der Produktion, die ununterbrochene Erschütterung aller gesellschaftlichen Zustände, die ewige Unsicherheit und Bewegung zeichnet die Bourgeoisepoche vor allen anderen [11] aus. Alle festen eingerosteten Verhältnisse mit ihrem Gefolge von altehrwürdigen Vorstellungen und Anschauungen werden aufgelöst, alle neugebildeten veralten, ehe sie verknöchern können. Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft, alles Heilige wird entweiht, und die Menschen sind endlich gezwungen, ihre Lebensstellung, ihre gegenseitigen Beziehungen mit nüchternen Augen anzusehen.

      And here is the most common English translation (by Samuel Moore, in 1888):

      The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

      • And here are just the key clauses I’m focusing on:

        “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft, alles Heilige wird entweiht”
        Moore, 1888: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”
        My stab: “Every [social] standing and all that is stationary evaporates, all that is holy is deconsecrated”

  7. I would like to add to this interesting discussion. The problem of translation is ubiquitous across scholarship. Example: The translation of de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxieme Sexe by H.M. Parshley is another example. The English translation of The Second Sex has been contested for decades producing realms of critique. This what de Beauvoir scholar Margaret Simon has to say about it:

    “Inadequate, inaccurate English translations of works by feminist scholars can slow the advancement of international research in women’s studies. We must begin to subject translations to the same critical attention we have focused on those sexist authoring and publishing practices that have defined women’s interests as tangential to scholarly research. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, one of the most widely known, classic essays on women’s experience and a cornerstone of contemporary feminist theory, is available in only one English translation from the French. In that 1952 translation by a professor of zoology, Howard M. Parshley, over 10 per cent of the material in the original French edition has been deleted, including fully one-half of a chapter and the names of seventy-eight women in history. These unindicated deletions seriously undermine the integrity of Beauvoir’s analysis of such important topics as the American and European nineteenth-century suffrage movements, and the development of socialist feminism in France. Compounding the confusion created by the deletions, are mistranslations of key philosophical terms. The phrase, ‘for-itself’, for example, which identifies a distinctive concept from Sartrean existentialism, has been rendered into English as its technical opposite, ‘in-itself’. These mistranslations obscure the philosophical context of Beauvoir’s work and give the mistaken impression to the English reader that Beauvoir is a sloppy writer, and thinker. ” “The silencing of Simone de Beauvoir guess what’s missing from The Second Sex” in Womens Studies International Forum – WOMEN STUD INT FORUM. 6. 559-564.

    A new translation was offered in 2010 https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/2010/05/30/books/review/Gray-t.html

    All to say that the weakening of language study and translation in graduate education does not serve intellectuals historians well. I feel hamstrung by lack of knowledge of German and minimal French. So, that means we have to be super diligent when working off translated works. However, since a bad translation to English can still have immense influence in its own right, does it matter? Is reception of the English version really all that matters in America not what was originally written in Europe?

    • I’m surprised that there was only one English translation of The Second Sex up until 2010.

      The whole area of translation is dicey, I agree. Just one smallish example: a few months ago I stumbled upon the English translation of Élisabeth Roudinesco’s Freud: In His Time and Ours, orig. published in French in 2014 or thereabouts. Though I wasn’t reading the original, I can read French and I could tell that the translation in quite a few places was clunkily over-literal: phrases and sentences that would have sounded ok in French had been translated in such a way that they sounded awkward, verbose, and/or pretentious in English. Translators have a hard job and I don’t want to be too critical, but I was somewhat surprised that a major univ. press would issue what struck me as not a particularly good translation. (I only got through the first third or so of the book.)

      Of course if someone can’t read a particular work in the original, the best situation is to have many English translations to choose from and/or compare. I’m thinking of The Prince, of which there are many translations extant. That may be on the extreme end of the spectrum, but a fair number of classics prob. have been translated a number of times.

      • Obviously it”s not just Machiavelli who has lots of translators. A lot of writers in the (putative) canon do, from Plato and Aristotle onward. But the relative brevity of The Prince, coupled w its fame, may be one reason so many translations have been produced; it looks less daunting to a prospective translator than something longer. Just speculating…

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