Idle Idol – Paul Lafargue
From Idler 7 December 1994
The French labour activist dreamed of a three hour day for everyone, was thrown in prison for subversion and in 1883 wrote a searing attack on the work ethic called The Right to be Lazy.
If you think you work too hard now, spare a thought for the French factory workers of the late 19th century. Despite the prevalence of new machines that the Industrial Revolution had produced, the workers – including women and children – slaved away for as long as 16 hours in hideous conditions for subsistence wages.
Onto this scene came the brilliant thinker and labour activist Paul Lafargue. The son of a Bordeaux landowner, he was born in Cuba in 1842 but grew up in a swiftly industrialising France. He became politically active in 1865 when a medical student in Paris. Following his involvement in the first ever International Congress of Students, he was banned from his studies for two years for “individual and collective insults to Church and Government”. Trouble with the authorities would be a fact of life for Lafargue for many years.
In 1868, after completing his studies in England, Lafargue married Laura Marx, son of Karl, a man who, along with the French anarchist thinker Proudhon, was a great influence on Lafargue and his gang. Around this time Lafargue also became involved with the newly formed International Working Men’s Association which campaigned tirelessly for a shorter working day.
In common with many who try to follow their own path, Lafargue was poor for years. His writings at this time were for underground periodicals and didn’t bring in the cash. In 1872, he and Laura opened a photographic shop in London to try and earn some money. But for the next ten years it was only the financial support of their friend the wealthy Engels that kept them alive. When they returned to Paris in 1882, things got so bad that lafargue had to take a McJob with an insurance firm. Luckily the firm folded after a few months and Lafargue was released from wage drudgery.
In 1883, his subversive activities landed him with a six – month jail stretch. But far from being an intolerable burden, Lafargue’s months inside were relatively luxurious; he and his friend Guesde, a magazine editor, were given the best rooms and sent brimming hampers of food and wine by friends. Crucially, the sentence also gave him the time to finish a pamphlet he had been working on. It was called The Right to be Lazy (the title was a parody of the socialist plea for the “right to work”) and argued passionately against the evils of work. Lafargue rallied against the capitalist system of production and consumption, which led people to believe that harder work led to greater prosperity. “Work, work, proletarians, to increase social wealth and your individual poverty,” he wrote. “Work, work in order that by becoming poorer, you may have more reason to work and become miserable. Such is the inexorable law of capitalist production.”
Lafargue noted that in England, the recent, shortening of the working day had not led to economic disaster. On the contrary, England was leading the way in production. “But if the miserable reduction of two hours has increased English productivity by almost one third in ten years, what breathless speed would be given to French production by a legal limitation of the working day to three hours?”
Lafargue even went so far as to recommend that we “forge a brazen law forbidding any man to work more than three hours a day”.
What really troubled Lafargue was the lust for work which people seemed gripped by: “Let a chance for work to present itself, thither they (the proletariat) will rush; then they demand 12 or 14 hours to glut their appetite for work, and the next day they are thrown out on the pavement with no more food for their vice.” It was this masochistic drive, Lafargue believed, that robbed machines of their liberating potential. “The blind, perverse and murderous passion for work transforms the liberating machine into an instrument for the enslavement of free men. Its productiveness enslaves them.”
As well as exposing the tyranny of work, Lafargue wrote eloquently on the nobility of idleness, calling on the ancient Greeks to bear witness. “The philosophers of antiquity taught contempt for work, that degradation of the free man, the poets sang of idleness, that gift from the Gods.” He gleefully quoted from the poet Antiparos; “Let us live the life of our fathers, and let us rejoice in idleness over the gifts that the Goddess grants us.”
Lafargue also used the Bible to add weight to his thesis: “Jesus, in his sermon on the mount, preached idleness; ‘Consider the lillies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.’” God, said Lafargue, was the ultimate Idler: “After six days of work, he rests for all eternity.”
The next ten years were a continuous round of trials, fines demonstrations, leaflets and jail stretches for Lafargue and his revolutionary friends. It was only in 1895, when Engles left Laura some money and Lafargue came into a little inheritance that life became a little easier for them.
Lafargue continued writing and campaigning into the early1900′s. But he and Laura began to feel that they were too old to be of use to the campaign, and in 1912 each injected themselves with a lethal dose of potassium of cyanide.
There may be those on the left who feel that because the ideas of Lafargue and others like him contributed to the installation of the 40 hour week in this country – an unthinkable luxury in the 19th century when a 60 or 70 hour week was the norm – we can therefore forget his polemic. He has done his job. But today Major’s government is bringing in yet tougher regulations to force people to take any crap job when they are on the dole or risk losing allowances. Currently, you are not allowed to claim the dole if you leave your job voluntarily. This is slavery by the back door, and it is inhuman and unjust. The ideas of people like Lafargue, therefore, are as relelvant as ever and deserve a rereading by as wide a public as possible.
Today we have inestimably more machines than in Lafargue’s time: surely then we should share his rage that the capitalists “do not understand that the machine is the saviour of humanity, the God who shall redeem man from the sordidae artes and from working for hire, the god who shall give him leisure and liberty”?