“Nobody wants to work anymore!” declared the many articles responding to 2022’s “quiet quitting” phenomenon. Referring to white-collar workers doing what’s simply in their job description, it was taken to be a sign that we’re all getting unproductive. A meme that highlighted this exact same phrase from articles written over the past 130 years quickly became popular.
Quiet quitting was only relatable to people with a relative amount of privilege within the job market. Warehouse staff, gig economy workers, and many in the public sector don’t have the luxury of working with such autonomy. They are being overworked and underpaid by their employers. A reaction to the proliferation of hustle culture into every aspect of our lives, workplace organizing, and strike action has brought working conditions back into the public discourse. Books such as Sarah Jaffe’s Work Won’t Love You Back and Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing have been persuasively making the case for less work, more care and play.
No doubt the nineteenth-century Marxist Paul Lafargue would admire these efforts to make us antagonistic toward work. His most famous pamphlet, The Right to be Lazy, first drafted in 1880, was one of many attempts to awaken the revolutionary spirit of the French working class. That text, newly translated by Alex Andriesse, is once again widely available. It is a full-throated attack on the “love of work,” which Lafargue describes as a “mental aberration.” Satirizing a contemporaneous English reverend, Lafargue writes: “By working, you increase your poverty, and your poverty spares us having to impose work on you by force of law.”
He takes aim at machines whose “productivity impoverishes” workers, but he is no Luddite; his argument is that rather than overproducing commodities that capitalism then exports abroad, workers of industrialized nations should enjoy their abundance at home and only work three hours a day, letting machines do most of the work. Following that, capitalism’s desire to expand can be halted so that people around the world will no longer have to fear “the kicks of the civilized Venus or sermons about European morality.” On certain points, he is prescient: “All of our products are adulterated to promote sales and limit their lifespan” still applies to consumer goods.
Bourgeois morality was a constant target for Lafargue. In The Right to Be Lazy, he rails against European “progress” of the sort celebrated by Victor Hugo, as well the Rights of Man, which he describes as “the rights of capitalist exploitation.” His distaste for the arrogant propaganda of Western civilization may well have been informed by his background; his grandparents were Jamaican, Haitian, and French Jewish, as well as French Christian. When asked about his heritage by Curaçaoan-American socialist newspaper editor Daniel De Leon, he replied: “I am proudest of my Negro extraction.” His familial ties didn’t dissuade him from using some antisemitic tropes in The Right to Be Lazy, however — though he did deviate from much of the French left when he supported the falsely convicted Jewish captain Alfred Dreyfus.
Lafargue is often referenced as a bit player in other peoples’ stories, but his influence on socialism, especially in France, and his dedication to internationalism makes him more than that. His story also reveals the ties that Caribbeans and people of African descent in Europe had with socialism from the very start. Lafargue was born into luxury in Cuba in 1842. His father had coffee plantations and “owned” a slave until 1866. The family relocated to France in 1851, the year of the Lopez Expedition, because of the repression faced by black and mixed-race people on the island. Growing up in France, he became a radical. His adoption of positivist philosophy laid the groundwork for his ongoing dismissal of the romantics. He criticized them for lacking “gaiety, skepticism, [and] banter,” not something one can accuse The Right to be Lazy of.
His original plan was to go into medicine, but his contact with republicans and adoption of the anarchism espoused by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon encouraged him to be involved with protests against Napoleon III’s Second Empire. This eventually led him to be banned from French universities and subsequently exiled to London. Later, the death of all three of his children in infancy would lead him to fully reject the practice. Having a letter of introduction to Karl Marx thanks to his involvement with the First International, Lafargue became a regular visitor to the Marx household in London. While he would retain anarchist sensibilities, Lafargue quickly became a vocal proponent of socialism.
He married Marx’s second daughter Laura, and the two moved to Bordeaux. They never made a steady income, and were constantly assisted by Friedrich Engels. While both Engels and Marx supported Lafargue and Lafargue played an indispensable role in popularizing Marxism in France, the two would dehumanize Lafargue by using ethnic slurs when referring to him. Lafargue’s mixed-race status appears to have been used against him to delegitimize his role in the development of the Left.
Back in France, Lafargue campaigned against Adolphe Thiers’s government and visited the Paris Commune. He was punished for both acts by being once again exiled from the country. Laura and he wouldn’t return until the general amnesty of 1879. The couple first spent time in Madrid, where Lafargue made a futile attempt to stem the tide of anarchism in Spain by promoting his father-in-law’s ideas. The couple then returned to London, a period when he first made contact with Jules Guesde, and acted as something of a messenger between Marx and the rising French socialist.
In London, Lafargue generally avoided the milieu of French exiles and instead devoted his time to developing a Marxist approach to literary criticism. Lafargue was interested in critique because, as Leslie Derfler explains, “The bourgeoisie was proud of its intellectual glory, and its idols had to be attacked.” His materialist approach to analyzing authors such as Hugo involved trying to describe the “social climate” of reading publics and to understand literary works as results of social contexts. Laura and Lafargue spent the final decades of their lives in France, during which time Lafargue would be imprisoned numerous times for, among other things, incitement to riot.
Lafargue would help to found the Federation of the Socialist Workers of France in 1880 with Guesde. Guesde also cofounded the radical newspaper L’Égalit, which Lafargue became a regular contributor to, writing on topics such as the importance of strikes and cooperatives. He even sometimes got published by establishment titles, to much controversy. In the meantime, Laura and he translated various works by Marx and Engels into French.
He became one of the first socialists to be elected to the French Parliament. While his efforts in this period can be portrayed as his trying to balance immediate reforms with the historical long view, his contemporaries were less impressed. Visitors were generally unhappy with the organization of the Second International, which he was partly responsible for. Lafargue described the socialist project in France at this time as a mouth without a body. Marxism may have finally made its mark in France, but the working class had not yet been persuaded into becoming revolutionaries. Lafargue retired and focused on writing. His work that “tried to describe . . . the relationships he perceived as existing between Black and ‘other proletarians,’” as Derfler describes it, could well be interpreted as an early form of the intersectional approach.
Both Laura and he ended their lives in a suicide pact in 1911. Despite having figures such as Karl Kautsky and V. I. Lenin paying tribute, Lafargue was mostly discarded by French and socialist scholars until the 1930s, though there were some efforts by Cuban scholars to rehabilitate his profile. French Marxist literary critics wouldn’t start mentioning him — and even then only briefly — until the 1960s. This might have been due to the force of his detractors, Georges Sorel being one of them. Sorel criticized Lafargue for merely reconstituting Marx’s work rather than providing innovative ideas. Leszek Kołakowski called Lafargue a “hedonistic Marxist,” which may not sound like much of an insult today, an era when ideas such as Acid Marxism and Fully Automated Luxury Communism are floating around.
The Right to Be Lazy takes seriously Engels’s insistence to “give highest priority to the question of hours of work.” Campaigns for the eight-hour workday were already well under way, as were conversations around what to do with the plenty that capitalism produces. Even J. S. Mill had described a possible “stationary state” economy of abundance. Issues around working hours needed to be taken seriously: between the middle of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, average working hours in the industrialized North of England had increased from 2,860 hours per year to 3,666.
But what of the “regime of laziness” that Lafargue dreams about in his pamphlet? It’s thin on details, aside from the author’s opinion that a mix of exercise and artistic pursuits is what constitutes a good life. The work does at times feel naive. It’s hard to tell if his idealization of the American West and the lives of women before the Industrial Revolution is tongue in cheek or not. His hearkening back to “primitive society” isn’t only primitivist but also misguided, given that we now know that preliterary societies were diverse and complicated and quite often not very communist. Yet Lafargue’s essay remains an exciting read because it still feels so visceral. You may be able to pick holes in its theory or be put off by some of the generalizations, but it has an immediacy and an energy that is captivating. Allegedly, Lafargue wasn’t a very good speaker; his writing shows his energies were better placed on the page.
Nicholas Burman is a writer and editor with a focus on the arts and culture.
This article was first published on Jacobin.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons