Paul Lafargue

Paul LafarguePaul Lafargue was born in Cuba in 1842. As he would later boast, he was an “international[ist] of blood before [he] was one of ideology.” By which he meant that of his four grandparents, only one was a Christian French citizen – one of his grandmothers was an Indian from Jamaica and one was a mulatto refugee from Haiti, and his maternal grandfather was a French Jew. He also liked to say that “the blood of three oppressed races runs in my veins” and when Daniel DeLeon asked him about his origins, he promptly replied, “I am proudest of my Negro extraction.” [1 ]

Lafargue’s family was balanced between privilege and oppression. While his father most likely moved from Cuba to France (in 1851) to escape the repression against the Black working class that was also hitting the mulatto middle class, he kept his property in Cuba and also “owned” a slave whose name was Genevieve, whom he only freed in 1866. Paul’s life marks a continuation of this contradiction – although he and Laura would often be very short on cash, the couple was supported for Engels for years and then by Paul’s inheritance. For most of his life he did not have to work at any kind of steady job. Likewise, although Paul repeatedly ended up in prison, being an officially recognized French political prisoner in those days meant suffering none of the squalid conditions or abuse of being a mere “social prisoner”, like a debtor or a thief. Political prisoners enjoyed spacious lodgings and unlimited visits; Pauls’ wife Laura would bring food almost every day, and friends would frequently smuggle in wine and spend the day hanging out and discussing politics and activism.

Today Lafargue is best known as being Karl Marx’s nicest son-in-law, and the author of The Right to Be Lazy, an attack on the ideology of work written in 1883, decades before “zerowork” would become a significant tendency within American anarchism. Anti-authoritarians like him so much, you would think he was one. Even in his day, a friend remarked that “You have had the fortune to meet Marx; if you had not you would have been one of our most brilliant anarchists.”

Lafargue was no anarchist, of course. Although as a medical student in Paris he had been influenced by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the patriarch of French anarchism, it did not take long for him to reject Proudhonism in favor of what he saw as the more exciting and radical ideas of Karl Marx. Within the First International he would wage battle against anarchists in France and Spain, earning himself the hatred of a number of revolutionaries. (Bakunin politely referred to him as ‘a mound of refuse.’)

Although today anarchism appears to many people interested in revolution as having a more useful legacy than Marxism, it is important to remember that things are rarely clearcut. In 1866, for instance, the Proudhonist French section of the IWMA rejected strike action as ‘barbarous’, opposed a legal eight-hour day as violating ‘freedom of contract’, and opposed woman’s place in the paid labor force on ‘physical, moral, and social’ grounds .[2 ]

Of course Proudhonism was not the only tendency in 19th century anarchism, and one should not be too kind in judging Lafargue’s intrigues. Fleeing France following the repression unleashed by the defeat of the Paris Commune, he lived underground in Spain, where he engaged in constant intrigues to set up a Marxist pole in the overwhelmingly anarchist Spanish workers’ movement. According to the anarchist historian Max Nettlau, “Perhaps never was such a flourishing movement invaded by an individual who assigned himself the task of destroying the revolutionary elements.”[3 ]

Later on, back in France, Lafargue would advance a policy of total opposition to anarchists and was known to get into fistfights with them. Nevertheless, he must have made some exceptions, for he managed to remain good friends with the anarchist-feminist communarde Louise Michel until her death, and in his own later years he would repeatedly urge cooperation with anarcho-syndicalists.

Indeed, despite his loyalty to Marx and Engels, Lafargue was (and is) repeatedly accused by both men and their followers as having never shaked the anarchism of his youth. A criticism that seemed to stem as much from his ideas as from his impetuous exuberance and maddening optimism. While Lafargue once characteristically quipped “what revolutionary times we live in! The least revolutionary are the revolutionaries”, Engels for his part would note that Lafargue was “always favorable to something happening, even anything, no matter what…”

Indeed, one gets the impression that Lafargue was like so many radicals one meets even today, always sure that the revolution was about to happen, eagerly awaiting the day of judgement just around the corner. Following a visit to his daughter and son-in-law in Paris, Marx bemoaned Lafargue’s ‘infantile boasting about the revolutionary horrors of the future.’ This sounds familiar!

Time and time again Marx and Engels would quip that Lafargue’s political immaturity and impetuosity were the result of “the stigma of his Negro heritage” and his “Creole blood.” Their strong affection for him notwithstanding, these racist remarks make one wonder whether he was really as flighty as all that, and to what degree this impression is the result of his comrades’ prejudices that people of colour lacked their intellectual discipline. Also, one must wonder to what degree his ideas were taken less seriously because he was not white.

Indeed, Lafargue’s ideas appear to be decades ahead of their time. His well-known opposition to alienated labour and the work ethic have already been mentioned, but he also pioneered cultural criticism from a materialist and Marxist perspective, something nobody else had attempted to do in any kind of consistent manner. Decades before Gramsci, he argued that the main job of revolutionaries was to “detach the worker from the ideas and the values of the capitalist society surrounding him and substitute the as yet uncreated Marxist culture.”

What did he mean by “Marxist culture”? It is difficult to say, but one thing is for sure: it had little resemblance to the societies that sprang up under the red flag in the twentieth century. Lafargue felt that the goal of socialism was to improve the lives of the working classes by reducing the amount of work. Stakhanovist fantasies and five-year plans would most likely have left him cold; as he once explained: “the aim of the revolution is not the triumph of justice, morality, liberty and other bourgeois jokes, but as little work and as much intellectual and physical enjoyment as possible.”

In fact, like many revolutionaries of his day, he was inspired by what he heard of the non-capitalist peoples whom European colonialism had decimated around the world, especially the indigenous peoples of North America.

In his pamphlet The Evolution of Property, From Savagery to Civilization (1890), he stated his belief “in a primitive society, in a sort of golden age or lost paradise where everything was held in common.” The rise of patrarchal class society “condemned the proletariat to vegetate in conditions of life inferior to those of the savages.” This was an important work, one which was translated and reprinted by communists in Germany, Italy and elsewhere.

One of Lafargue’s priorities was making Marxist fundamentals accessible to the working class, and as such he was a great vulgarizer. His best writing drips with sarcasm, ruthlessly exposing bourgeois hypocrisy and inhumanity. The Religion of Capital is clearly one of the best examples of this. Serialized in the French Workers Party’s newspaper Le Socialiste (Lafargue had been involved in founding both) in 1887, it was widely reprinted and in its day it proved as succesful as the combined serializations of all the collected works of Marx and Engels. Lafargue’s opposition to alienated labour and the great scam that is capitalism run through every page of this pamphlet. Also clear was his belief that traditional religions had outlived their usefulness to capitalism, and that the bourgeoisie was in need of a new ideology with which to disorganize and neutralize the insurgent masses. His overly optimistic vision is also clear in the introduction, where he depicts the capitalists being terrified by an imminent communist victory. And the repeated juxtaposition of capitalists from different nations all working together to fleece the working class is a clear reflection of his view that national differences were of little concern.

From the 1880s on Lafargue was a key player in French communism, being a founder and chief intellectual of the Federated Socialist Workers Party, and following the latter’s breaking apart in 1882 Lafargue and other Marxists, most notably Jules Guesde, went on to found the French Workers’ Party. He was also very active in the French section of the Second International.

In 1911, at the age of seventy, both Lafargue and his wife Laura were found dead while visiting a friend. They had both committed suicide, seemingly as part of a plan of Paul’s. In the note he left he explained:

Sound of mind and body, I am killing myself before pitiless old age, which gradually deprives me one by one of the pleasures and joys of existence and saps my physical and intellectual strength, paralyzes my energy, breaks my will, and turns me into a burden to myself and to others.

A number of years ago I promised myself not to live beyond the age of seventy; I have fixed the time of year of my departure from life and I have prepared the method of carrying out my resolution: a hypodermic injection of hydrocyanide acid.

I die with the supreme joy of having the certitude that in the near future, the cause to which I have devoted myself for forty-five years will triumph.

Long live Communism! Long live the Socialist International!

Twenty thousand people attended their funeral, and revolutionaries from around the world paid their respects. Lenin – who befriended the couple while in exile – could not decide which ascetic lesson to draw from their suicide. At one point he approvingly noted that “if one no longer has the strength to work for the party, it is necessary to look at the truth squarely and to know how to die as did the Lafargues.” At another he complained that “a socialist does not belong to himself but to his party. If he can still be useful to the working class, for example to write an article or make an appeal, he had no right to commit suicide.”[ 4 ]

Of course Lenin missed Lafargue’s point, which more resembles the bohemianism of Harold and Maude than the stoic dedication of a Christian martyr. Lafargue was ideologically committed to pleasure, and seems to have felt that only a life filled with fun was a life worth living, and he could not conceive of old age being fun. That he was in good health when he killed himself, and that his wife seemingly followed suit without leaving any note of her own, seems to indicate the poverty of this position. The idea that life must be fun in order to be worthwhile seems to produce a similarly brutal economy of existence as the capitalist injuction that only a productive life is worth living.

Following his death the international communist movement forgot about most of Lafargue’s intellectual contributions. The communist press, particularly in the 1920s, underscored his ‘errors’, and with the rise of Stalinism works like The Right to Be Lazy fell into relative disrepute. It was mainly amongst independent socialists, anarchists and the small “ultra-left” that he retained his stature.

The information and quotes in this essay are all from two books:

Paul Lafargue and the Founding of French Marxism, 1842-1882, by Leslie Derfler, Harvard University Press 1991

Paul Lafargue and the Flowering of French Socialism, 1882-1911, by Leslie Derfler, Harvard University Press 1998


1   Paul Lafargue and the Founding of French Marxism, 1842-1882 , pp. 14-15 [return to text ]

2   Ibid. p. 70 [return to text ]

3   Ibid. p. 287 [return to text ]

4   Paul Lafargue and the Flowering of French Socialism, 1882-1911 , p. 302 [return to text ]


Notes on Translation of The Religion of Capital

With the publication of this pamphlet, English-readers can once again enjoy Paul Lafargues La rel'igion du capital. A biting commentary on bourgeois values written in France in 1887, the translation used here was found in a 1918 pamphlet published by the Socialist Labor Party's New York Labor News Company.

The translater clearly wanted to stay true to Lafargue's mocking satirical style, and the entire text is rendered in that old-fashioned archaic writing style that really makes it seem like a guide to religious worship. This is true to the author's original style.

Clearly wanting the text to speak to an American audience, parts of the pamphlet, especially the introductory section (“The London Congress”), were reworded, at times ever rewritten. In fact, Americans like the Reverend Morgan Dix and Samuel Gompers are nowhere mentioned in Lafargue's original, just as European leaders like Clemenceau, Ferry and Krupp who are mentioned in the French original completely disappear in the SLP translation.

Concessions to the political culture of the United States in 1918 may have also played a part, as the French word “Communisme” does not get translated as “Communism” (the word never even appears in this translation), but as “Socialism”. Furthermore, a short jab at Comtean postivism - which may have fallen flat on this side of the Atlantic - was replaced by a lengthier attack on Felix Adler's “Ethical Culture” movement.

Finally, in what one imagines may have been a bow to perceived WASP prudishness, a large section of Lafargue's original work - Le sermon de la courtesane (“The Prostitute's Sermon”) - was completely left out of the American translation.

As a historical document, this pamphlet not only says much about Paul Lafargue himself, but also about the SLP, and to truly decipher its meaning towards each one would have to compare, sentence by sentence, the translation with the original. Which is a task that i have not undertaken.

While one interested in a detailed or scholarly study of Paul Lafargue and his works would do better to check out this text in its French original (available on the internet at http://www.marxists.org/francais/lafargue/works/1886/02/religion_tabmat.htm), this is not possible for everyone, nor would it be everyone's goal. For questions of “who contributed what” are really academic, and miss the point of why one would publish this pamphlet, today almost 120 years after Lafargue first wrote it.

Paul Lafargue excelled at taking the piss out of the cultural and moral fetishes of capitalism. While he had faults - indeed, he had many many faults! - he anticipated the critique of bourgeois culture that Antonio Gramsci would develop decades later. His best works - of which The Religion of Capital and The Right to be Lazy are definitely two - were viciously witty attacks on capitalism's ideological props, written in such a way to appeal to a large range of readers. His fellow communist intellectuals were definitely not his main target audience.