Mistranslating Marx: The “idiocy of rural life”

Given the concern with changing conditions in rural society in much of this issue (as represented by the work of Amin and William Hinton) we thought that readers would be interested in the origin of a misunderstanding that surrounds Marx’s thoughts on rural life. 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 authorized English translation of the Manifesto. This issue is addressed in Hal Draper’s definitive, though little known work, The Adventures of the Communist Manifesto (Berkeley: Center for Socialist History, 1998)an expanded version of his earlier work, The Annotated Communist Manifesto. Draper’s Adventures includes a new English translation of the Manifesto, together with paragraph-by-paragraph annotations, and the most detailed history currently available of the various editions of the Manifesto in major European languages.

In Draper’s translation the phrase “the idiocy of rural life” in paragraph 28 of the Manifesto is replaced with “the isolation of rural life.” His explanation for this correction is worth quoting at length:

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century, German still retained the original Greek meaning of forms based on the word idiotes: a private person, withdrawn from public (communal) concerns, apolitical in the original sense of isolation from the larger community.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. To inject the English idiocy into this thought is to muddle everything. The original Greek meaning (which in the 19th century was still alive in German alongside the idiom meaning) had been lost in English centuries ago. Moore [the translator of the authorized English translation] was probably not aware of this problem; Engels had probably known it forty years before. He was certainly familiar with the thought behind it: in his Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), he had written about the rural weavers as a class “which had remained sunk in apathetic indifference to the universal interests of mankind.” (MECW [Marx and Engels, Collected Works] 4:309.) In 1873 he made exactly the Manifesto’s point without using the word “idiocy”: the abolition of the town-country antithesis “will be able to deliver the rural population from the isolation and stupor in which it has vegetated almost unchanged for thousands of years” (Housing Question, Pt. III, Chapter 3).

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. See also John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press), pp. 137-38.

Monthly Review, October 2003, vol. 55 # 5: Notes from the Editors

This is fascinating. This point serves as an excellent support of Exchange Value‘s essay regarding misquotations of Marx by prominent business magazines in order to make him seem like he celebrates the bourgeoisie. As well, this quotation is apparently “often used by Greens to mischaracterize [Marx & Engels] as relentless modernizers.” Retranslating the sentence gives it an intriguingly collectivist resonance, making it worthwhile for Marxists and non-Marxists alike to readjust their views of Marx accordingly.

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About Graham Joncas

We are a way for capital to know itself.

Posted on September 27, 2011, in History, Quotation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. No. The English version with the phrase “idiocy of rural life” was authorized and approved by Marx and Engels themselves (who were, obviously, quite fluent in English).

    Idiocy in this context means precisely the confinement, stupor and apathy of rural life — and is a fine use of words (and quite close to the German idiotismus).

    Draper is free to disagree with Marx and Engels, but he should keep his mitts off the words of their work… and not insert his shades of meaning in the place of theirs.

    • Okay. Just provide an authoritative citation or two confirming that Marx & Engels approved the English text and I’ll remove the post (or add a disclaimer or something—I haven’t decided).

      [Edit 17/01/25: originally I added a disclaimer + question mark in the title in response to Ely, but am now changing the post back to how it originally was.]

    • Sprechen sie deutsch, Herr Ely? Haben sie, zum beispiel, Heine gelesen? Vielleicht auf Englisch?

    • Idiocy in modern English doesn’t mean “confinement, stupor, or apathy.” It means “stupid.” I don’t see how specifying the nuances of a statement, and giving an account of its origins is “inserting shades of meaning.”

    • Draper seemed to have covered the issue about it being an authorized translation:

      “The original Greek meaning (which in the 19th century was still alive in German alongside the idiom meaning) had been lost in English centuries ago. Moore [the translator of the authorized English translation] was probably not aware of this problem; Engels had probably known it forty years before. He was certainly familiar with the thought behind it: in his Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), he had written about the rural weavers as a class “which had remained sunk in apathetic indifference to the universal interests of mankind.” (MECW [Marx and Engels, Collected Works] 4:309.) In 1873 he made exactly the Manifesto’s point without using the word “idiocy”: the abolition of the town-country antithesis “will be able to deliver the rural population from the isolation and stupor in which it has vegetated almost unchanged for thousands of years” (Housing Question, Pt. III, Chapter 3).”

      If I’m remembering correctly, Marx and Engels had a good command of English but not absolutely great. And no one should expect them to. It’s plausible that this part of the translation slipped by them. More over, as a commenter below noted, “idiocy” doesn’t mean “confinement, stupor and apathy” in everyday English. It means dumb, stupid, not well-read, or any other plethora of synonyms. If “confinement, stupor and apathy” are indeed close to “idiotismus” in German, then I don’t see anything wrong with Draper changing the translation to “isolation”. That’s a more neutral and not as denigrating of a term, and captures what they (as you admitted) mean when M&E wrote “idiotismus”.

  2. The current (Moore) translation was only OKed by Engels since it wasn’t published until 1888, 5 years after Marx’s death. The idea of isolation would fit with Marx’s description of the French peasantry as being like a sack of potatoes in the Civil War in France.

  3. People want to beat up on Draper because they have a hidden agenda and what they really don’t like is his systematic and intransigent hostility to Stalinism and social democracy.

  1. Pingback: the “Idiocy of Rural Life” quote | Toronto To Saltspring

  2. Pingback: Manufacturing Myths in Palo Alto and Pittsburgh | workoftheworld

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