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The Right To Be Lazy
by Paul Lafargue, Trans. By Charles H. Kerr
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Thierry Paquot in Le Monde diplomatique
"Rather than a denial of work or an affirmation of leisure as an end in itself, The Right To Be Lazy [is] a celebration of life, or rather of what life could be: not merely recuperation from labor, but the essence of life itself." (Leslie Derfler) "Lafargue doesn't just denounce the 'religion of capital,' but all social systems based on work as the sole individual and social value."
Paul Lafargue's masterpiece, The Right To Be Lazy, at once funny and serious, witty and profound, elegant and forceful, is a logical expansion of The Right to the Pursuit of Happiness announced by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. It was not only extremely popular but also brought about pragmatic results, inspiring the movement for the eight-hour day and equal pay for men and women who perform equal work. It survives as one of the very few pieces of writing to come out of the international socialist movement of the nineteenth century that is not only readable-even enjoyable-but pertinent. This new translation by Len Bracken, fuller than previous versions in English, is supplemented by Lafargue's little-known talk on The Intellectuals.
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: French
From the Publisher
Paul Lafargue's spirit is free-floating and carries with it a bracing whiff of disrepute. Born in Cuba on January 15, 1842, Lafargue was a child of the New World, although he was a citizen of France. Educated and trained as a physician, he found his true calling as a revolutionary, a speaker, writer, agitator, and organizer on behalf of French working people. He took an active part in the Paris Commune and was one of the founders of the party of revolutionary socialists in France. He held public office and represented the French workers at international congresses. He also spent time in French jails. He is best remembered as the author of The Right To Be Lazy, a subterranean classic that has remained all but constantly in print in numerous languages since it was first published in 1880. He was fond of pointing out that the blood of three oppressed peoples-African, Carib-Indian, and Jewish-ran in his veins. He told Daniel DeLeon, one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World, that he was proudest of his "Negro extraction." DeLeon thought this statement characteristic of him and went on to say, "Paul Lafargue had a constitutional affinity with the oppressed. His being was a harp the strings of which responded melodiously to the sighs of man. The poetic nature of Lafargue is the dominant key in his life's work." The poetic nature of Lafargue's polemics helps to keep them alive when the writings of his more solemn contemporaries have sunk without a trace. He was a free man, or longed to be, rather than an ideological hair-splitter, an ironist as much as a Marxist. He was aware of the liberating power of laughter and was far closer to the revolutionary philosophes of the 18th Century-particularly Diderot-than to the plodding Stalinoid propagandists of the 20th Century. "Socialism" was to his quick and bright mind what "Reason" had been to the thinkers of the 18th Century, in the United States as well as in France. "Everything," he said to students in Paris during a speech in 1900 that is reissued in this volume, "everything, religion, philosophy, science, politics, privileges of classes, of the State, of municipalities, was submitted to its [Reason's] pitiless criticism. Never in history had there been such a fermentation of ideas and such a revolutionary preparation of men's minds." Lafargue's poetic nature found its natural outlet as a fermenter of ideas, as a preparer of minds for a happier, healthier, freer future. His masterpiece, The Right To Be Lazy, at once funny and serious, witty and profound, elegant and forceful, is a logical expansion of The Right to the Pursuit of Happiness announced by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. It was not only extremely popular but also brought about pragmatic results, inspiring the movement for the eight-hour day and equal pay for men and women who perform equal work. It survives as one of the very few pieces of writing to come out of the international socialist movement of the 19th Century that is not only readable-even enjoyable-but pertinent. Much of the suffering and confusion caused by today's obsolete social system-"downsizing," the "exportation of jobs," the increasing number of careers that amount to little more than wasting time for pay (making decent people cynical, bored, or ashamed-or all three at once), despair and the addiction to anodynes it breeds, yuppification with its daft pride in the sixty-hour week, the use of technology to enslave rather than free, terrorism and counter-terrorism, gangs of unemployed youth roaming our cities and gangs of unemployed intelligence agents roaming our world-springs directly from the continuing worship of the false god Work that Lafargue set out to smash with his iconoclastic zeal. If his argument is dated, it is mostly because our rulers now are more concerned with maintaining and extending their power than with increasing their wealth. The social purpose of work is now primarily to keep people occupied rather than to produce wealth. Time was money. Now it's power. What mars his work most are its anti-Jewish cracks and the way Lafargue unthinkingly trots out a Rothschild when he wants a capitalist to whip. (He was unaware of the wit and wisdom of that Rothschild who once told a journalist, "They call me the King of the Jews. I am only the Jew of the Kings.") This anti-Jewish stance shows the blood relationship between the international socialism of the 19th Century and the national socialism (actually state capitalism) of the 20th Century. Anti-Jewish cracks take on an especially sinister aspect when they are read on this side of Belsen, Dachau, and Treblinka. Of all the misfortunes endured by humanity in the 20th Century, one that cries out for examination and analysis is the transformation of international, democratic socialism into national, dictatorial state-capitalism. It is as if Jesus and his merry band of Jewish disciples became the Inquisition in a matter of decades. Clearly the test for international socialism was what we now call World War I and international socialism failed the test. Multitudes of socialist thinkers and leaders who could not resist the siren song of patriotic, fratricidal war scrapped their internationalist principles, clicked their heels, and marched off to battle or stayed at home to cheer on their younger comrades. World War I marks a great divide in the history of radicalism. Before the war, radicals-or at least the most typical of them-were Quixotic spirits determined to right the wrongs suffered by the laboring poor. After the war, radicals-or at least the most typical of them-were power-hungry thugs. Lafargue and his wife, Laura Marx, one of the daughters of Karl Marx, took their own lives on November 27, 1911. He had become too old and ill to enjoy life or care for himself; and he hated to be a burden to others. She had no wish to continue without him. They did not live to face the test of the war much less the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of Fascism, the Stalinist murder of anarchists and other independent-minded radicals in Spain, the death camps, the bomb, the gangsterization of the American labor movement, the growth of the International Brotherhood of Secret Police, and the rise of the global televisionary state. In The Right To Be Lazy, Lafargue's witty voice continues to speak to us from the other side of that great divide. It is a pleasure and an inspiration to listen to him now, when the world has been turned so completely upside down that "leisure" has become an industry. Lafargue's spirit is likely to make its presence felt again in the future. Republication of his little masterpiece in a fresh, complete translation might help ensure that it will.
Excerpted from The Right To Be Lazy by Paul Lafargue. Copyright© 1998. Reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.
The bearded stern Jehovah gave his followers the supreme example of ideal laziness-after six days' work, he rested for eternity.
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