Alexandre Skirda: Un plagiat “scientifique”: le copié-collé de Marx [‘Scientific’ Plagiarism: Marx’s Cut-and-Paste Job] [Book Review]

This book was ignored by the majority of the critics, most definitely on account of the query it raises about Karl Marx’s writings. But that is not the heart of the book. It is made up of three parts: 1. The Communist Manifesto (being a study opening and closing the book, some 90 pages in all; 2. A disclosure of the various brands of socialism around prior to the crushing of the attempted revolution of June 1848 in France (a full 50 pages) and 3. A study of Marx’s grounding in socialism (60 pages long). 

Each of these three component parts has an important contribution to make. 

I ought to point out that the plagiarism refers, not so much to the not always obvious plagiarism per se but to Marx the man. As Maximilien Rubel has stated: “Marx, ever the student, drank from every available source: a relentless reader, he absorbed the lessons taught with a sharp-eyed discernment which, on its own, allowed him to arrive at great intellectual syntheses and guaranteed them a lasting outreach” (p190). And Skirda quotes Marx directly: “Now, where I myself am concerned, the credit for having discovered the existence of classes within modern society does not belong to me, any more the struggle they wage with one another. Bourgeois historians had, well before my time, sketched out the historical evolution of that class struggle and bourgeois economists had laid out the economic anatomy of it.” (pp. 204 and 224). But Marx was writing that in 1852 in a letter to a Russian correspondent. Great discretion and a rather belated admission concerning something written in 1848!

And certain Marxists, shamelessly skimming over Marx’s sources, marvelled at the Manifesto: In Lenin’s view, “This little volume is worth tons […]”. Trotsky wrote: “The most inspired of all the works in the world’s literature”, whilst Engels declared it as “[a notion] destined to do for the science of history what Darwin’s theory has done for natural science.” (pp. 12 and 16)

The Communist Manifesto’s style is concise in the first two chapters which define and denounce the capitalist society of the time. But there are phrases just as fine to be found in Victor Considerant’s 1843 Manifesto: “[…] man’s exploitation of his fellow man in its completest most inhumane and most barbaric form […]” (p 208). “Wheresoever free competition reigns […] the fate of the labouring classes necessarily become more wretched and abject […]”(p. 212). Likewise, Saint-Simon had said a few pithy things back in 1829: “Thus men are divided into two classes, the exploiters and the exploited” (p. 223). And in Eugene Buret in his 1840 work On the Wretchedness of the Labouring Classes in England, this: “Modern industry has dissolved the family. It has, so to speak, reduced girls and women to prostitution.” (p 229)

Other sections of the Communist Manifesto such as “German, or ‘True’ Socialism” and especially “Conservative, or Bourgeois Socialism” and “Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism”, contain grotesque passages (starting with the capital letter for ‘True’, reminding me of the ‘True Cross’, the ‘True Faith’ of the Christians, be they obscurantists or otherwise).

No less grotesque or nonsensical is the very cursory allusion to Proudhon as a bourgeois socialist, when “Proudhon writes not only in the interests of proletarians [in What is Property?] but is himself a proletarian worker. His opus is a scientific manifesto from the French proletariat”. That opinion comes from Karl Marx in The Holy Family, 1844-45, but seems to have slipped the mind of the author of the Communist Manifesto! A strange contradiction that!

In Marx the invention of the term “utopian” is justified by the denunciation of a future “social harmony” that would banish “class antagonisms […] Besides, do these proposals not still have a purely utopia meaning?”. So what is Marx’s suggested way out? “Political action by the working class” [peaceable and lawful action, be it understood] and there is the final appeal; “Proletarians of the world unite!” (a slogan devised by Karl Schapper back in 1847) 

Published in February 1848, the proposals in the Communist Manifesto were almost instantly rendered obsolete since in June 1848 the French army put down the insurrection of the Parisian workers and their backers, progressive bourgeois like Louis Blanc, Ledru-Rollin, etc. Representing a severe, if not definitive setback for the “political action of the working class [and its progressive bourgeois allies].” 

Marx and Engels, struck blind in June 1848, carried on chasing after the dragon of a workers’ party capable of imposing fundamental reforms on capitalism; they demonstrated the same blindspot in 1871 after the Paris Commune. This belief in the potential of the left in power thanks to elections [in February 1936] was swept aside in Spain in July 1936. The left in Chile, though scientific and free-masonic, revelled in its election victory in 1970 by trusting to past experience and its ethnic exceptionality (it being more European than Amerindian). But its mistakes were exploited on 11 September 1973 by Chilean capitalists and their CIA allies.

The section on the evolution of ideas prior to 1848 will serve certain readers as a reminder  and for others will come as news about what Karl Marx dubbed the utopian socialists. The notion of the surplus-vale can be found in Owen and was especially well explained by Proudhon, eleven years ahead of Marx (p. 164). Printing worker Anthime Corbon produced a newspaper L’Atelier between 1840 and 1850 (accessible on the web from Gallica), described as “A Special Workers’ Newspaper, Written Exclusively by Workers”. Reading through its many demands we find (p 113): Reduced working hours; introduction of a minimum wage; regulation of the competition with workers from prison and convent labour; a complete overhaul of the labour appeals boards; an old age retirement fund; freedom of assembly, combination and association.  Note, by the way, the continuing pertinence of those demands and the fact that the Marxists in power in the USSR implemented virtually none of the demands these “utopian” workers were making.

The final section deals with the moulding of Karl Marx up until 1848. In a calm and objective fashion, Skirda sets out the family context and the cultural influences from Moshe Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, Proudhon, etc., and his friendly and financial ties to Engels [who belonged to a capitalist family]. Their joint activity within the League of the Just and then the Communist League demonstrates familiarity with the jiggery-pokery practised by Engels and Marx, shedding light on what they were to get up to against Bakunin and the anti-authoritarians inside the International Working-Men’s Association.

The back-biting and contempt for certain people, the manipulation, the references to developments in the arts and literature as well as proletarian strategy formed an incoherent mess; but over-arching all of it there was the cut of victory – even a Pyrrhic victory – by which Engels and Marx were driven.

This book is strong stuff, brimming with facts and is stimulating even if the crudely  borrowed terminology and disguising of the sources strike me as a better characterization than plagiarism. Marx, it seems to me was still a young man, eager for intellectual and political success.

Later Marx may have come to realize that he was only one socialist among the many, acknowledging, say, that his economic analyses were not applicable to 1880 Russia: “[The expropriation of the farmers] The ‘historical inevitability’ of this trend is therefore expressly restricted to the countries of western Europe”. Which is a limited acknowledgment in that it implies that the peasantry was possessed of a political dynamic of its own: and it was a statement of the obvious for Bakunin, whom Marx had been poking fun at for years. Marx had moved in terms of grasping the socio-economic stages, as we can see, but there had been no change in his “mood”! 

Some simple supporters, schemers and even proletarian-killers (remember, 2021 is the centenary of the Kronstadt uprising in 1921) have made Marx their idol. Social emancipation can never be brought about through submission to a dogma.

Alexandre Skirda: Un plagiat “scientifique”: le copié-collé de Marx [‘Scientific’ Plagiarism: Marx’s Cut-and-Paste Job] (Paris, Vétché, 2019, 237 pages)

From: Chroniques Noir & Rouge, Paris, No 4, February 2021. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.