Marx v. The Rest
Richard J. Evans
- BuyKarl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber
Norton, 648 pp, £25.00, May 2013, ISBN 978 0 87140 467 1
Do we need another biography of Marx to go alongside the many we already have? The justification given by Jonathan Sperber is compelling. Previous accounts of Marx’s life have gone one of two ways. Either he is seen as a prophet of modern times, a seer whose theories help us understand the predicament we are in, especially in times of economic crisis, an inspiration to everyone who wishes to see state and society emancipated and transformed. Or, alternatively, he was a misguided and misguiding ideologue whose theories have been responsible for some of the worst crimes of the 20th century. This book aims to scrape away the patina of retrospective polemic to reveal Marx in the context of his own times. Sperber’s career as a social and political historian has centred on the Rhineland in the mid-19th century, but he has also produced wide-ranging and authoritative surveys of modern European history, including a comprehensive study of the 1848 Revolutions. It quickly becomes clear that he is ideally qualified to carry out the task he has set himself.
Vol. 35 No. 11 · 6 June 2013
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.
Vol. 35 No. 12 · 20 June 2013
As a student of Tocqueville who unfortunately knows no German, I am fascinated by the correspondence about Marx’s phrase ‘Alles Ständische’. Jem Thomas’s letter suggests to me that ‘ständisch, Stand’ are exactly what Tocqueville was concerned with in Democracy in America (Letters, 6 June). In his opening sentence Tocqueville says that nothing caught his attention in the United States so much as ‘l’égalité des conditions’. This phrase has given modern readers and translators a lot of trouble, as ‘conditions’ nowadays are almost always taken to be physical – material – economic. I have long preferred to use the word ‘status’ to express Tocqueville’s meaning, and it is clear from Thomas’s letter that this is exactly what Marx had in mind. ‘Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft’ would have given Tocqueville no trouble (he did know German); but he would of course have differed from Marx in not wanting or expecting a proletarian order to ensue. What is most striking to me is that both sages laid so much stress on the same phenomenon – the collapse of the ancien régime. The irreversibility of this calamity may seem self-evident to us, but it was hardly so in Restoration Europe, the Europe of Metternich, Nicholas II and Guizot, which shaped both men. By Thomas’s account, Weber merely deepens and intensifies Tocqueville’s anxious account of the new democratic regime.
All that was solid had indeed melted into air, and we are still struggling with the consequences. I seem to glimpse a new framework of historical interpretation, which will leave the stale orthodoxies of left and right on the scrapheap at last.
University of Essex