It seems to me that the author should have used a singular pronoun here:

Bakunin: Universal suffrage by the whole people of representatives and rulers of the state — this is the last word of the Marxists as well as of the democratic school. They are lies behind which lurks the despotism of a governing minority, lies all the more dangerous in that this minority appears as the expression of the so-called people's will.

(Karl Marx, "On Bakunin's Statism and Anarchy" (1874), as quoted in A Darwinian Left, by Peter Singer (1999).)

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  • @FumbleFingers, Bakunin wrote this in about 1873. I guess the translator has deliberately used some archaic/uncommon structures. The extract is from a book by a famous Australian philosopher. – apadana Mar 23 at 18:17
  • Nah. The translator has made a mistake as regards the aspect you're querying. An archaic/uncommon structure would be the use of this minority appears as [something], which I think would normally today be expressed as ...claims to be... – FumbleFingers Mar 23 at 18:22
  • @FumbleFingers, Thanks for your comment. – apadana Mar 23 at 18:24
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    @FumbleFingers: The subject of "lurks" in that sentence is not the plural noun phrase "lies"; it is the singular noun phrase "the despotism of a governing minority". Whatever errors there might be in the sentence, this is not one of them. – sumelic Mar 23 at 18:34
  • @sumelic, I read this in Singer's A Darwinian Left (1999). I don't know who the translator is. Here Singer is talking about a manuscript where Marx has copied out extracts from Bakunin's Statism and Anarchy and added his own comments. Maybe the mistake, if any, was made by Marx, or by the translator of the book he had in his hands. – apadana Mar 23 at 18:55

I agree with you. Singular "...is a lie..." sounds better to me in English. (Incidentally, it also seems to be closer to the wording originally used by Bakunin: the Russian text of Statism and Anarchy as given on this site uses the singular noun "ложь": "Всеобщее и поголовное право избирательства целым народом так называемых народных представителей и правителей государства -- вот последнее слово марксистов, так же как и демократической школы, -- ложь, за которою кроется деспотизм управляющего меньшинства, тем более опасная, что она является как выражение мнимой народной воли." I don't know what version of the text Marx was reading, although this blog post indicates that he read a Russian version, not just a German translation.)

Some English translations of this section of Statism and Anarchy do in fact use the singular: the one available online at the Marxists Internet Archive (which gives its source as Bakunin on Anarchy, translated and edited by Sam Dolgoff, 1971), uses the wording "This is a lie...".

As user341275 mentioned, "lies" might have been used because the previous sentence mentions two groups, "Marxists" and "the democratic school", but I disagree that this makes it a good idea to use the plural "lies". If two groups are both promoting the same falsehood, it remains one lie, not two. The "as well as" in the first sentence makes the use of "They are lies..." at the start of the second understandable, but I don't find it very acceptable in comparison to "This is a lie...".

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    I would assume the "lie/lies" are not the "Marxists and the democratic school" but the "universal suffrage by the whole people of representatives and rulers of the state." The translation you found at the Marxists Internet Archive makes the structure and meaning of the sentence much clearer (but presumably departs a lot more from the Russian syntax). – Peter Shor Mar 23 at 20:23
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    +1 though I will note that lie in Russian for all intents and purposes has no plural (just try crowbaring it into Bakunin's sentence right there and see for yourself). So you get quite some leeway every time you see it, and consequently it's not uncommon to see translators get used to and carried away by that. – RegDwigнt Mar 23 at 20:26
  • @RegDwigнt: Interesting, I didn't know that. – sumelic Mar 23 at 20:30
  • Thank you very much. Your knowledge of Russian and the research you made were very helpful. – apadana Mar 24 at 1:09
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    @Arham: Glad I could help! To be clear, I don't know Russian (which is why I'm grateful for RegDwight's comment, since he does); I just looked up the text and identified the specific word that corresponded to the English noun "lie(s)" in this sentence. – sumelic Mar 24 at 2:32

Look carefully at beginning of the sentence...and notice „as well as“ connecting two ideas. What does that indicate? TWO things combined („universal sufferage AND the democratic school. Hence, the plural „they“ must be used to refer to the two of them together and is totally correct. A spell checker on a computer would catch this immediately. And „They are lies (referring to the noun lie in the plural „lies“, NOT the verb „lie“)...behind which lurks (correct singular conjugation for the singular „(behind) WHICH). Which CAN relate to plural objects in English. The sentence is grammatically correct. Example „these are lies which cannot be accepted.“ Perfectly acceptable.

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    The lies are not "the Marxists" but the "universal suffrage by the whole people of representatives and rulers of the state." – Peter Shor Mar 23 at 20:18

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