Mistranslating Marx? The "idiocy of rural life"
Publisher: Linguistic Capital
Date Written: 27/09/2011
Year Published: 2011
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX19917
One often hears the criticism that Marxism was from the beginning an extreme modernizing philosophy that looked with complete disdain on rural existence. Did not Marx himself in The Communist Manifesto, it is frequently asked, refer to "the idiocy of rural life"? Here a misconception has arisen through the mistranslation of a single word in the English translation of the Manifesto. In fact, Marx's criticism of the isolation of rural life then had to do with the antithesis of town and country under capitalism as expressed throughout his work.
IDIOCY OF RURAL LIFE. This oft-quoted A.ET. [authorized English translation] expression is a mistranslation. The German word Idiotismus did not, and does not, mean "idiocy" (Idiotie); it usually means idiom, like its French cognate idiotisme. But here [in paragraph 28 of The Communist Manifesto] it means neither. In the nineteenth century, German still retained the original Greek meaning of forms based on the word idiotes: a private person, withdrawn from public (communal) concerns, apolitical in the original sense of isolation from the larger community. In the Manifesto, it was being used by a scholar who had recently written his doctoral dissertation on Greek philosophy and liked to read Aeschylus in the original. (For a more detailed account of the philological background and evidence, see [Hal Draper], KMTR [Karl Marxs Theory of Revolution, New York, Monthly Review Press, 1978] 2:344f.) What the rural population had to be saved from, then, was the privatized apartness of a life-style isolated from the larger society: the classic stasis of peasant life.