When Helen Macfarlane produced the first English language translation of The Communist Manifesto she began the text by saying; “A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe. We are haunted by a ghost, the ghost of Communism…”
I’ve always loved this evocative but, let’s face it, inaccurate translation of the manifesto’s opening line “Ein Gespenst geht um in Europa – das Gespenst des Kommunismus”. It is a delicious thing to conjure up the image of socialist revolution as some kind of seditious whisperer, carrying respectable bourgeois children into the night as recruits for its cause.
These days the line is usually rendered as “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism” which has it’s own charms, avoids translating “Gespenst” as two entirely different things in the space of one line and doesn’t dis communism as “frightful” right at the start of a pamphlet whose main purpose is to make us feel warm and fuzzy about the idea.
However, it puzzles me that I’ve never seen anyone mention that a spectre, or ghost, is an intriguing thing to compare a living movement to. (...) So why would Engels and Marx choose this as the hook with which to start such an important pamphlet? Perhaps they didn’t. (...)
Both Marx and Engels were “Left Hegelians” and were attracted to Hegel’s concept of Gheist, which can be a world mind, spirit or ghost – or all three at once. Today we’re familiar with ideas like that of a ‘zeitgeist’ (the spirit of the age or moment), and the concept of an era being defined by specific moods or ideas are key to Hegel’s philosophy, and this can be seen reflected in Marx and Engels’ work.
Nowhere is this clearer, it seems to me, than in this “Gespenst” that is “haunting” Europe. I’d ask you does it not make more sense for a political propagandist to say to those radicalised by the revolutions of 1848 that “There’s a spirit sweeping across Europe, the spirit of Communism” (which is an entirely viable translation) than comparing his movement to a chain rattling apparition? (...)
I think I’ve made a brief but sound case to say that the classic opening line of the Manifesto is an eccentric and unhelpful way of translating the original German. But I’m going to go further. I want to argue that Macfarlane’s frightful hobgoblin is actually better than the original.
While Soviet power or land, peace and bread don’t immediately conjure up images of mischievous fairies stealing your underpants please bear with me. Goblins do things for themselves, they have agency, spectres possess people and use them for their own ends.
There has been a consistent problem on the far-left of seeing things like General Strikes, Revolutions, and indeed the working class itself as mystical events which have a special, almost religious meaning, outside of the real people doing actual things. (...)
Far better, it seems to me, to see the movement as a living, breathing thing. A creature that can have children, make mistakes, roll in the mud and poke out its tongue when feeling cheeky. A political movement is made up of specific people who make specific decisions, there are no ghosts in its ranks or undead zombie masters commanding the hosts. I already regret that metaphor, but you know what I mean. (...)
Just as no two goblins are alike, different movements have their own features. Unique personnel, strengths and weaknesses that they themselves are responsible for.(...) I worry that this ghost, or spirit, or spectre encourages us to believe that there is a magical paper seller in the sky who has an overview of the situation and can only be accessed directly via the medium of the Central Committee’s Ouija board.
This problem doesn’t come from this one line in this one book, it underpins a great number of far-left writings, but if a hobgoblin is good for anything it’s poking a stick into a bag of hot air. Goblins love heresies, spectres are allergic to them. Goblins are flesh, spirits are ideal. You pick which one a materialist should go with.
Thursday, April 23, 2015
Publicada por Miguel Madeira em 15:48