Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

Paul Lafargue

Sam Gordon, born in 1910, joined the Communist League of America after hearing Trotskyist leader James Cannon speak on internationalism. He was in Germany prior to Hitler’s victory and his reports served as a basis for Trotsky's writings on Germany, many of which Gordon translated into English. He was the emergency secretary of the Fourth International at its special conference held in New York in May 1940. He played an important role in uniting the British Trotskyist movement during the Second World War and was an important representative of the US Socialist Workers Party in Europe during the ensuing Cold War, living permanently in Britain from 1952. This article, written in 1971, was to have been the introduction to a selection of essays by Paul Lafargue including his famous work The Right to be Lazy. Unfortunately the selection was never published. Sam Gordon died in 1982.

In the current wave of literary discovery of Marx and Marxism, the earlier popularisers of scientific socialism have generally be overlooked. It almost seems as though the two founders of this school of thought, Karl Marx himself and Friedrich Engels, and until the advent of George Lukacs, for instance, some fifty to a hundred years later, there was a complete trough in which there was no substantial interpretative Marxian comment, nor commentator aside from political theoreticians and innovators in their own right like Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, perhaps Gramsci or Karl Korsch, worthy of note.

And yet a whole generation of powerful and distinguished popularisers followed the founders of this Weltanschauuing Among them – besides Karl Kautsky, whose political leadership (or misleadership) in the history of the Second International tends to eclipse his much more considerable literary contributions – were Franz Mehring, Eugene Dietzgen, Eduard Fuchs, Antonio Labriola, Daniel De Leon above all, Paul Lafargue.

Few of Lafargue’s writings have appeared in English for over sixty years, that is, ever since he died. And yet, some of Lafargue’s acute observations of bourgeois society and prescriptions for the liberatory struggle of the working class against it have about them a ring of actuality; of timeliness that the years have not withered. Among these there is, first of all, his essay, famous in its day, on The Right To Be Lazy. His slashing attacks on capitalist hypocrisy about the sacredness of toil, are apropos today. They could almost have been a direct riposte to the great hand-wringing in the venal press today about the many million “man-hours wantonly lost” strikes, alongside complete silence, of course, about the greater number of such hours lost in genuine wanton industrial accidents and illness.

The immense strides in labour-saving machinery made by automation in the so-called “third industrial revolution” provide a particularly apt realisation of Lafargue’s forecast of the trend and illuminate his bold proposal in the 1880s for a three-hour day: at a time when women and children, let alone men, were still working more than ten hours a day, and often more than 70 hours a week!

A few lines about Lafargue the man are in place.

Paul Lafargue was born in Santiago, Cuba, on 16 June 1842, the son of a planter. His paternal grandmother was a mulatto from Santo Domingo, who fled from there during the French Revolution. His paternal grandfather was French, killed in the risings in Haiti. His maternal grandfather, Abraham Armagnac, was a French Jew and his maternal grandmother a Carib Indian. He was truly a born internationalist.

In 1851 his family took the young Paul to France, where he studied in the lycées of Bordeaux and Toulouse before taking up medicine in Paris.

As a student there he became interested in socialism and a follower of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the mutualiste.

He went to London, in 1865, to present a report on the French working class movement to the General Council of the First International. On this occasion he first came into contact with Marx. After many heated but friendly arguments he eventually became convinced that Marx’s views were superior to Proudhon’s.

He married Marx’s daughter Laura in 1868 and thereafter, despite getting his degree in medicine and various ingenious but unfruitful efforts at business enterprises, never really got a grasp on the art of making a living.

His first allegiance and preoccupation was always the international working class movement which he served as a member of the International’s General Council, as its representative in Spain and eventually as one of the founders of the Marxist-inspired French Workers Party.

Engels, fond of the Lafargues and appreciative of Paul’s political capacity, provided them with funds as he did Marx himself over the years, and left them a tidy sum in his will.

Three children that Laura bore Paul died tragically in infancy, Thereafter Laura and Paul devoted themselves exclusively to revolutionary work in a unique political partnership which ended only with their joint suicide in 1911.

Lafargue and Laura died as they lived. By 1911 the small legacy that Engels had left them was almost exhausted,

On 26 November 1911, the gardener at the country house in Draveil, which belonged to the Lafargues, found Paul and Laura, fully dressed, each sitting upright in an armchair, motionless, dead.

Lafargue explained why they committed suicide (and how), in a note left behind:

Healthy in body and mind, we are enjoying us lives before pitiless old age which has been depriving us of the pleasures and joys one after another, and which has been stripping us of our physical and mental powers, paralyses our energy and breaks our will, making us a burden to ourselves and to others. For some years we had promised ourselves not to live beyond 70, arid we fixed the exact year for our departure from life. I prepared the method for the execution of our resolution, It was a hypodermic of cyanide acid.

We die with the supreme joy of being certain that in the near future the cause for which we devoted 45 years will triumph.

Long live Communism, long live international socialism!

The death, devised with medical skill, was obviously fairly painless.

The Lafargues were buried shortly thereafter in the Père Lachaise Cemetery. Representatives from socialist parties all over Europe attended their funeral. V.I. Lenin represented the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Among other things, he said in his graveside oration:

Long before the Russian revolution [of 1905] the class-conscious workers and all the Social Democrats of Russia had come to cherish Lafague as one of the most talented and penetrating disseminators of Marxism.

Franz Mehring, for the German party said:

He was a born dialectician, the dialectic was the most solid link uniting him with Marx.

The “Right to Work” flayed by Lafargue so mercilessly, was first proclaimed on the barricades of 1848 in the Proudhonist guise, and was again and again revived as a rallying call at times of low ebb in the business cycle, once called “depression” but now more fashionably, minimisingly dubbed “recession”.

It would be fatuous to compare the lot of the workers today with that of Lafargue’s day. And yet, the alienation of labour is seized upon as characteristic of our age by sociologists and socio-psychologists after rediscovering the very words of the concept in the early writings of Marx (and, after discovering his Grundrisse, in his later ones as well).

Work, perhaps less arduous in one occupation than in another, is no less onerous than it was before under the capitalist whip. The greatest part of leisure for workers, for the bulk of humanity, that is, still remains leisure to starve, or at least to skimp, brought about in the business cycle by overwork in prosperity, by “overproduction”.

Only a few farsighted academics and trade unionists, inspired in part by Marxist thought, have given the problem consideration in the light of the advance of automation.

At a conference held in the University of California at Santa Barbara in the summer of 1964 they came to the conclusion that the wage system as such had outlived all sense of reality. In what became known as the Santa Barbara Declaration, they boldly called for a guaranteed annual subsistence income to be established as the right of every US citizen regardless of work.

They backed up this demand and the voluntary allocation of work tied to it, by a host of arguments from the American industrial scene of the day and the trend it was setting.

Among the hard-headed practical trade union leaders Walter Reuther had earlier on called for “a guaranteed annual wage” in negotiation with the automobile barons, but this was based on the forced labour of capitalism.

Needless to say, neither the watered down trade union demand nor the bold Santa Barbara proposition has made actual headway.

For the natural “right to be lazy”, that is, for the right of human beings to lead a life of their choice (instead of the deadly, monotonous and stultifying wage slavery), there still remains no other option but the one Lafargue put forward in his time: the overthrow of the capitalist system.

Lafargue had a brief look into that type of solution in the great Paris Commune of 1870, in which he was involved as one of its delegates-at-large in France, a role for which he was hounded and exiled until 1880.

Thus “the right to be lazy”, was entirely in the spirit of the Commune, which was one of those lightning flashes of history that illuminates mankind’s future. If it is not proclaimed today explicitly by any political organisation, it remains implicit in the programme of all who are faithful to the teachings of Marxism.

The “guaranteed national income” may well become the concrete form which this right will take on in the years to come.

There is at present also a negative illumination of the timeliness of this human demand. It is, the widespread opting out of considerable millions of youth in the Western world, the so-called “hippies”. Certainly there some anti-social aspects of this phenomenon. But roundly it must be assessed as a warning to society; the bell is tolling for wage slavery. To live and prosper, society must cast aside capitalist exploitation and establish the right to leisure for all, which advanced technology has made entirely realistic. More than ever before Lafargue is proven correct in his call for “the right to be lazy”

I am sure that, the new generation of workers and students will sense the same joy, in discovering Lafurgue that we older ones did in the thirties and even before that and that Lafargue’s message will help them join with pleasure as well as ardour in helping to put an end to this iniquitous, rotten and outlived capitalist system.

Sam Gordon

1. Lenin Works, 4th Russion edition Vol.IV, p.269

2. See the Triple Revaluation International Socialist Review, Summer 1964

3. Some signatories were: Linus Pauling, (Nobel Laureate), Michael Harrington, James Boggs, Brigadier General Hugh B. Hester, Gunnar Myrdal and many other prominent Americans and other figures.

4. James P. Cannon, What Socialist America Will Look Like, in Speeches for Socialism (Pathfinder Press, New York, 1971) pp.301-424.

Updated by ETOL: 28.6.2003