The Right To Be Lazy

book review by primitivo morales

Submitted by ludd on July 4, 2010

"Far better were it to scatter pestilence and to poison the springs than to erect a capitalist factory in the midst of a rural population. Introduce factory work, and farewell joy, health and liberty; farewell to all that makes life beautiful and worth living."

The French constitution contains a phrase about the "Right to work." Unlike its US cousin, this phrase didn't mean overtly anti-union/syndicalist laws; it simply states that workers demanded work. But was it really the workers demanding work, or was it the new owners of France requiring workers?

One hundred years after the French revolution a demand was put forward by the workers of North America for a 40 hour work week, in contrast to then common 10-13 hour days, 6 days a week. The infamous Haymarket Massacre and May Day were indirect results of this struggle; the reduction in work took a bit longer: in the US it wasn't obtained until during or just after WW II.

In the '90s a lot of people look enviously at the 40-hour workweek; the rats may have won the race but the rest of us are still frantically galloping. Even so common a source as the Gallup poll indicates that the workweek has increased from 40.6 hours in 1973 to 46.9 hours in 1988. Even the "progressives" issue calls for "full employment." Is there no alternative?

Karl Marx's son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, could perhaps be called a man ahead of his time. I say perhaps because it may more properly be said that no person is ahead of their own time; it's just that most people are well behind their own. This was brought home when the PW collective was sent a book, a new edition of an 1880 tract called "The Right to Be Lazy," by Monsieur Paul Lafargue. Stick with me while I retrace ancient history.

M. Lafargue, born in Santiago Cuba on January 15, 1842, was the son of a mulatto woman—Virginia—who had fled Haiti, and of Abraham Armagnac—a conservative landowner from Bordeaux. He was expelled from a university in Paris along with other students for insulting church and state in 1865. He soon became a member of the Proudhonist French section of the first international (IWMA). He studied medicine in England, graduating in 1868, and then practicing in London for a while. On April 2, 1868 he married Karl Marx's daughter, Laura. He was in Paris when the Franco-Prussian war started. When the Paris Commune was declared he went to Paris, but returned to the provinces to campaign on behalf of the Commune. After the fall of the Commune he was smuggled into Spain, arrested on August 11, 1871, and was held for 10 days. He was released before a secret society was able to initiate a plot to free him, and went to work in Spain as a member of the First International (IWMA); he was by then allied with Engels against Bakunin. In 1880 he was back in France, writing for a socialist weekly called L'Egalite. This is when he wrote "The Right to Be Lazy." It was printed as a book in 1883 while he was in jail on political charges.

He starts by denouncing "A strange delusion" that posseses the working classes: "... the love of work, the furious passion for work, pushed even to the exhaustion of the vital force of the individual and his progeny. Instead of opposing this mental aberration, the priests, the economists and moralists have cast a sacred halo over work." The thinking that underlies these conditions was not at all new, even then. He cites a 1770 pamphlet, published anonymously in London under the title "An Essay on Trade and Commerce." Part of it reads "the factory population of England had taken into its head the fixed idea that ... Englishmen ... have by right of birth the privilege of being freer and more independent than the laborers of any country in Europa. This idea may have its usefulness for soldiers, since it stimulates their valor, but the less the factory workers are imbued with it the better for themselves and the state. Laborers ought never to look upon themselves as independent of their superiors. It is extremely dangerous to encourage such infatuations in a commercial state like ours, where perhaps seven-eighths of the population have little or no property, The cure will not be complete until our industrial laborers are contented to work for six days for the same sum which they now earn in four." He goes on to propose imprisoning the poor in work-houses, which should be "houses of terror, where they should work fourteen hours a day in such a fashion that when meal time was deducted there should remain twelve hours of work..." Ever wonder where Maggie Thatcher & Co. get their ideas?

Lafargue goes on to describe the many wonders of industrial work and the many blessings that it brings on the workers, among them bitter poverty and an early death. He quotes several of his contemporaries about the grim conditions prevailing in Europe at the time—12 and 14 hour days for men, women and children, poor food, polluted air, long commutes (by foot), etc.

He drives home the contrast between the idyllic promises of the ideologues of work and the reality, among them a Rev. Mr. Townshend of the Anglican Church: "Work, always work, to create your prosperity ... " Referring to the legal imposition of work the good cleric continues: "[it] gives too much trouble, requires too much violence and makes too much noise. Hunger, on the contrary, is not only a pressure which is peaceful, silent and incessant, but as it is the most natural motive for work and industry, it also provokes to the most powerful efforts." Yet the workers were never given more than a fragment of what they produced—merely enough for a brute survival, while the vast productivity of industry was consumed by a very narrow minority. Indeed, the rich could not dispose of all the surplus, which, claims M. Lafargue, led to the cyclical crises of capitalism. There is too much food while workers starve, and so it has to be burned. There is too much cloth even as people wear tattered rags, etc. And, of course, the slump in "demand" would require less production, and the consequent unemployment of multitudes of workers. This is a direct result of the tremendous productivity of "modern" industry.

He gives an example of conditions in one industry. Says he "A good workingwoman makes with her needles only five meshes a minute, while certain circular knitting machines make 30,000 in the same time. Every minute of the machine is thus equivalent to a hundred hours of the workingwomen's labor ... What is true for the knitting industry is more or less true for all industries ... But what do we see? In proportion as the machine is improved and performs man's work with an ever improving rapidity and exactness, the laborer, instead of prolonging his former rest times, redoubles his ardor, as if he wished to rival the machine." He clearly despises the rich for promulgating this philosophy—for requiring it, even—but he also hurls epithets at the working class for having embraced it whole- heartedly, for having acquiesced in their own enslavement; "this double madness of the laborers killing themselves with over-production and vegetating in abstinence."

He attacks the concept of progress as well, saying "our epoch has been called the century of work. It is in fact the century of pain, misery and corruption. And all the while the philosophers, the bourgeois economists ... all have intoned nauseating songs in honor of the god Progress, the eldest son of Work. Listen to them and you would think that happiness was soon to reign over the earth, that its coming was already perceived." As one of his examples he cites the old regime (before the French revolution) as having guaranteed, by the laws of the church, 90 rest days; 52 Sundays and 38 holidays during which it was strictly forbidden to work. He cites this as one of the great crimes of Catholicism (in the eyes of the bourgeoisie) and a major cause of the apparent irreligiosity in the commercial bourgeoisie who "emancipated the workers from the yoke of the church in order the better to subjugate them under the yoke of work." He gives many cases from feudal and pre-capitalist Europe to support the idea that the machines have not brought us leisure. He does point out that the reductions in work that had been attempted up to then—in England where there was a reduction in the work day to 10 hours a day from 12—it was accompanied by increased productivity!

In one section, again curiously relevant to today, he says "Our epoch will be called the 'Age of adulteration' just as the first epochs of humanity received the names of 'The Age of Stone," 'The Age of Bronze," ... These adulterations, whose sole motive is a humanitarian sentiment, but which brings splendid profits for the manufacturers who practice them, if they are disastrous for the quality of the goods, if they are an inexhaustible source of waste in human labor, nevertheless prove the ingenious philanthropy of the capitalists, and horrible perversion of the laborers, who to gratify their vice for work oblige the manufacturers to stifle the cries of their conscience and to violate the laws of commercial honesty." For overwork—and for complicity in it—the workers are rewarded with the insecurity of unemployment whenever they have worked enough to create ample stocks.

He ends with a chapter—"New Songs to New Music"—in which he sketches a society based on laziness. Far from calling for abolishing the capitalist class—and other non-productive parasites (generals, free and married prostitutes, etc.)—he says "if they swear they wish to live as perfect vagabonds in spite of the general mania for work, they should be pensioned and should receive every morning at the city hall a five dollar gold piece." Satirical, but with an element of utter seriousness beneath it all—what happens when everybody, not just a few, are allowed to consume fully of what is produced, are allowed a life of full leisure?

In the introduction to the book, written by Joseph Jablonski, it is pointed out that many generations of radicals have lost sight of M. Lafargue's visionary society of leisure, continuously echoing the cry for "more jobs." Jablonski says it well: "authentically revolutionary theory was kept alive by the various currents of the extreme Left: Wobblies, anarchists, 'ultra-Left' Marxists, Wilhelm Reich, the Frankfurt School, and the surrealists. In the 1960s the Black insurrections, wildcat strikes, the 'New Left,' the women's liberation movement and the 'counterculture' brought this hidden revolutionary tradition ... to the fore. In more recent years younger radicals have found in the even more hidden tradition of wilderness (or ecological) radicalism—of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Robert Marshall, Aldo Leopold—a crucial complement to their social radicalism, and a challenge to the naive optimism of most Marxists and anarchists (Lafargue included) regarding the emancipatory character of technology."

This is an excellent book and for the most part it doesn't show its age. The style of M. Lafargue's writing is somewhat dated—elaborate metaphors, heavy use of the vocative, a certain hyperbole—but the material here is as important as ever, and not only for the ideas of leisure.

M. Lafargue was also an organizer. As Fred Thompson puts it (pg 91): "... his reputation is mainly that of a popularizer of Marxism; party builder he became, too—and insistent that the party serve immediate and long-run needs of the workers ... and yet [he was also] a champion of socialist unity. ... M. Lafargue aimed to build a movement in which there was scope for those of his fellow rebels with whom he disagreed." This book goes a ways towards revealing a man whom most historians have ignored, or slighted.

The book itself has a long printing history. It was translated into English by Charles H. Kerr in 1907, and has been reprinted many times by, among others, the IWW as well as the Socialist Party during the days of Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman. Its most recent printing was by the Chicago anarchist group Solidarity Publications in 1969. It has now been reprinted by the Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, of Chicago (1989). It has the full text of M. Lafargue's piece (60 pages), an introduction by Joseph Jablonski and an essay about the man and his times by Fred Thompson. This is an excellent book—as history, as analysis, as rhetoric. It has its problems—left as a solution for the reader—but it belongs on YOUR bookshelf. 4 stars! Check it Out!

—P. Morales