Book Review: The Right To Be Lazy, by Paul Lafargue

[Reviewed by Martin Rushmere]

The weakness of Marxism and ultra socialists is that they confuse “work”, “toil” and “labor”. Most of the human race wants to work, partly to stimulate mental activity but above all to acquire dignity, a term that Marxist literature makes great play with.

Sure, the Marxists drone on about the lack of dignity because of exploitation of labor, but are loath to acknowledge that the individual aspires to a life of fair pay for a fair day’s work.

Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, committed the same error. Hindsight of 120 years allows us to take a smug and condescending attitude to his theories. But that is to miss the point of this semi-satire based on the premise that the honest working man should cease toiling for the uncaring, cruel masters, not by strikes but taking more leisure and forming communal activities.

His crusade was in the white heat of anger at the end of the 19th Century about the inhuman conditions in the factories that seemed destined to be eternal. And he had every right to be angry, as industrial societies in France and England treated the workers abominably. That point he and his father-in-law hammered home ceaselessly and effectively.

Marxist theories were an ideal spark for the workers became — Lafargue was publicly airing a horror that was admitted privately in the drawing rooms of society hostesses. In reality, Marxists became agitators for social reform, allied with a whole host of social activists who were not interested in national politics.

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Their efforts led to national governments waking up and taking responsibility. Child labor was banned, minimum wages and working hours set and the beginning of social security was glimmered. As working and social conditions improved, the importance of Marxism declined. All that people such as Lafargue could then offer as an antidote to capitalism and the industrial state was a vague community cooperative system, with unspoken assurances that everyone would live happily ever after.

Trouble is, someone always has to make decisions and take the lead. A jumbled council of equals soon leads to squabbles and nothing being done.

The Right to be Lazy is a whiplash against conditions at the time. Even Victor Hugo comes in for scorn, “quackishly romantic”, while the legions of capitalists such as the Rothschilds are consigned to perdition.

Lafargue’s essay on the Rights of the Horse rams the point home. Thoroughbreds and race horses were treated far better than laborers.  “I raised a tempest in the Chamber of Deputies when I asked that women, two months before and two months after confinement, should have the rights and the means to absent themselves from the factory. My proposition upset the ethics of civilization and shook the capitalist order.

“What an abominable abomination – to demand for babies the rights of colts.”

An even greater personage took up the cudgels of socialism in France after Lafargue, Jean Jaures. His efforts to upset the emergence of a new Ancien Regime –unaffected by the horrors of the First World War — were seriously troubling to the establishment. His murder and the reverberations therefrom are seen by some as one of the causes for France being so unprepared for war, leading to the shameful collapse in 1940.