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Jonathan Sperber: "Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life": Tuesday Excellent Book Noting Weblogging

We should begin by translating the Communist Manifesto's phrase:

Das stehende und das ständische verdampft...

as:

Society's order and the orders of society are steamed away...

with "orders of society" referring to the legal and cultural distinctions that make one noble, peasant, bourgeois, guild member, et cetera. We should not translate it as: >All that is solid melts into air...

And we should note its particularity. What sublimes is, in fact, not everything, but rather the ancient regime in the sense of Tocqueville's The Old Regime and the French Revolution, and there is more than a hint of technological determinism here: it is the industrial steam engine that does the evaporating...

Jonathan Sperber: Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life:

[Marx's] “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.”... The famed sentence, beginning in the original “Das stehende und das ständische verdampft,” would be more accurately, if not quite so elegantly, rendered in English:

Everything that firmly exists and all the elements of the society of orders evaporate, everything sacred is deconsecrated, and men are finally compelled to regard their position in life and their mutual relations with sober eyes.

The bourgeoisie, in other words, would defeat the Prussian conservatives Marx had battled while editing the Rhineland News. Economic power deriving from the capitalists’ steam engines (“to evaporate” in German is verdampfen, containing within it Dampf or “steam”) would terminate the anachronistic society of orders that Friedrich Wilhelm IV and his supporters idealized. Following Marx’s theory of ideology, the intellectual and artistic correlates of that society, particularly Romantic glorification of the devout Middle Ages, would also end. Its place would be taken by the secularized worldview and the cool, detached perceptions of artistic realism, already circulating among the authors of Young Germany, most prominently Marx’s Paris friend Heinrich Heine.

Marx’s confrontation with Prussian conservatives was included in another of the Manifesto’s observations about the cultural characteristics of capitalism: the imminent end of nations and nationalism. “National distinctiveness and conflicts between nations disappear more and more with the development of the bourgeoisie, with free trade, the world market, the uniformity of industrial production and the relations of life corresponding to them.” This passage was one of Marx’s least successful predictions, in view of the ever greater importance of nationalism in pre-1914 Europe, beginning with the revolutionary outbursts of 1848, and reaching a tortured, nightmarish climax during the First World War. >Yet if we remember Marx’s own organizational efforts and experiences in the months immediately before writing the Manifesto—attending the International Congress of free trade economists in Brussels, or working with the London Fraternal Democrats and the Brussels Democratic Association, both of which were based on the cooperation of radicals of different nationalities—then we can see how such an argument might have originated. In this respect, Marx’s attitude would have been hardly atypical for radicals in 1840s Europe, who imagined different nationalist movements cooperating against undemocratic, monarchical rule...

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