Idlers of the World, Unite!

In Paul Lafargue’s irreverent 1883 pamphlet The Right to Be Lazy, satire is not a tool of glib mockery, but a utopian strategy for imagining another world.

Charlie Tyson
March 20, 2023

Margarete Hamerschlag: The Feast, 1927, woodblock print, 48 x 57 cm

Discussed in this essay: The Right to Be Lazy and Other Writings, by Paul Lafargue, translated by Alex Andriesse. NYRB Classics, 2022. 136 pages.

Karl Marx’s gift for satire is often underestimated. In his chapter on the working day in Capital, he recounts the death of a 20-year-old dressmaker named Mary Anne Walkley who was “exploited by a lady with the pleasant name of Elise.” After working for 26 1/2 hours straight in a cramped, poorly ventilated room, Walkley suddenly expired, “without, to the astonishment of Madame Elise, having finished off the bit of finery she was working on.” Zola at his most acidic could hardly do better.

Marx peppers the text of Capital with such blackly comic moments. Quoting a factory manager who justifies the 15-hour workday he requires by noting that his machine is always stopped for dinner, Marx comments in a parenthetical: “What generosity!” Describing the adulteration of bread resulting from the capitalist takeover of the baking industry, he reflects: “Englishmen, with their good command of the Bible, knew well enough that man, unless by elective grace a capitalist . . . is destined to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow.” But these pious Brits did not know that their bread would include “cobwebs, dead cockroaches,” and sand, among “other agreeable mineral ingredients.”

If the socialist writer Paul Lafargue, the husband of Marx’s daughter Laura, could not rival his father-in-law’s brilliance or scholarship, he took up the economist’s satirical streak with great enthusiasm, writing humorous sketches, essays, stories, and speeches. Born in Cuba, Lafargue often boasted that “the blood of three oppressed races”—Jewish, African, and Caribbean—ran through his veins; his work later helped spread the communist gospel in France. Today his fame rests primarily on his 1883 pamphlet The Right to Be Lazy, recently reissued by New York Review Books alongside three other pieces: an attack on Victor Hugo, a brief memoir of Marx, and a didactic Q&A titled “A Capitalist Catechism,” all newly translated by Alex Andriesse. In his irreverent polemic against work, Lafargue calls on French workers to “proclaim the Rights of Laziness,” namely by securing the passage of a law limiting the working day to three hours. A tribute to “the joyous god Idleness,” Lafargue’s essay argues that it is in leisure that humanity realizes itself most fully.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this champion of laziness has often been condemned as a dilettante and wastrel. Though he trained as a doctor, he never practiced medicine. Instead, as the historian Tony Judt writes, he “dabbled unsuccessfully in various trades, and for most of his life lived off his father’s bequest and Engels’s characteristic generosity” (Friedrich Engels was known for the financial help he gave Marx). Lafargue delighted in shocking others, and quickly earned a reputation as the bad boy of French Marxism: As a student at the University of Paris he provoked an uproar by declaring, from the podium of an international student conference in Belgium, “War on God! That is progress!” (He was expelled soon after.) Marx himself had doubts, early on, about the charming foreigner courting his daughter. “Observation,” he wrote to Lafargue, “has convinced me that you are not by nature diligent, despite bouts of feverish activity and good intentions.”

Lafargue quickly earned a reputation as the bad boy of French Marxism.

Indeed, Lafargue may have been too indolent to write, in full, the treatise for which we remember him. He borrowed the title from an 1849 book by the economist Louis Moreau-Christophe, which he found in Marx’s library, and according to his biographer Leslie Derfler, he may have borrowed much more. The Right to Be Lazy is filled with citations from labor histories, economic tracts, and writings by ancient theorists of leisure that also appear in Moreau-Christophe, whom Lafargue does not cite.

But this good-for-nothing layabout was tireless in his propagandizing and speechifying. A prolific journalist, he was also a major public figure for the international left. He served for two years in the French national legislature and, with the radical journalist and politician Jules Guesde, helped create the French Workers’ Party, the country’s first Marxist party. For decades, he traveled around France speaking to audiences in mining villages and mill towns. He was jailed several times for his political activities; he revised The Right to Be Lazy from prison. And the treatise itself, however deficient in scholarship, exhibits the spirited energy that was his signature. While countless socialist tracts of the period were consigned almost instantly to the sad fate of ephemera, forgotten in piles of yellowing detritus, The Right to Be Lazy ranks among the most popular 19th-century political pamphlets. Only The Communist Manifesto has been translated into more languages—and Lafargue’s pamphlet appeared in Russian first.

The dismissal of Lafargue as an idler often accompanies a dismissal of idleness as a serious political goal. For example, in his authoritative three-volume study Main Currents of Marxism, the political philosopher Leszek Kolakowski describes Lafargue as exemplifying a “hedonist Marxism” aimed at little more than “carefree consumption,” rather than the “free creative activity” Marx prized. But this kind of response is prudishly literal, approaching Lafargue’s mischievous satire as a straightforward argument for drinking and feasting. The Right to Be Lazy is, rather, a Rabelaisian fantasia, whose aim is not to propose a rigorous program for the organization of society but to unsettle our ordinary beliefs about work.

Lafargue does more than ridicule conventional pieties about the sanctity of labor. He also poses a challenge to the left, which has long debated the role that work should play in our lives. Is work an indignity that humanity should strive to reduce or eliminate through automation? Or is it a central, defining feature of human life that must be liberated from the alienation that it suffers under capitalism? This tension can be located within Marx himself. Taking inspiration from Hegel, he saw work as the means through which we make ourselves and our world. By externalizing our consciousness through the production of chairs, buildings, medicines, and poems, we make our sentience shareable; such acts of creation are essential to our nature. Yet in the third volume of Capital Marx also wrote that freedom begins only where necessary labor ends, arguing that “the shortening of the working day is its basic prerequisite.”

Today, these opposing poles of Marx’s thought find expression both in campaigns for improved labor conditions and worker autonomy, and arguments for ending work as we know it altogether. In contemporary texts of anti-work leftism, Lafargue is often mentioned as a cheeky precursor, but rarely taken seriously, as the inheritors of his philosophy have sought to prove that their opposition to work is serious, not frivolous. And when The Right to Be Lazy is treated at length, this mannered, fantastical text is often read as if it were a white paper or policy brief. But the flamboyance of Lafargue’s approach is what makes it valuable. The pro-work position has the rhetorical advantage of being closer to long-dominant beliefs about the intrinsic value of labor. The anti-work conception is far more distant from reigning social norms, and thus requires more abrasive strategies of articulation to expose and contest the ridiculousness of our way of life. For Lafargue, that strategy is satire. In his hands, it is not a tool of glib mockery, but a utopian strategy for imagining another world.

In contemporary texts of anti-work leftism, Lafargue is often mentioned as a cheeky precursor, but rarely taken seriously, as the inheritors of his philosophy have sought to prove that their opposition to work is serious, not frivolous.

Satire has its origins in social critique. The form derives, in part, from Greek Cynicism, a confrontational philosophy that flourished in the 4th century BCE, known for its caustic challenges to conventional morality. The most famous of the ancient Cynics, Diogenes of Sinope—often described as “Socrates gone mad”—lived in a tub, masturbated in public, rejected material comforts, and emphasized the animality of the human condition. The Cynics likewise rejected normal canons of argument in favor of sarcasm, invective, and insults.

While Cynicism as a philosophical school faded after the Roman Empire, its modern sense as a psychological disposition—characterized, according to the critic Helen Small, by “a casting of doubt on the motives that guide right conduct”—maintains an attachment to satire. The cynic assumes base motives for action. Through terse questioning or satirical censure, they mount a corrosive attack on dominant social conventions or widely cherished values, such as our moral attachment to work. It is no coincidence that the founder of the contemporary tang ping (lying flat) movement in China, a campaign that calls on middle-class workers to “lie flat” and exit the rat race, cited Diogenes as inspiration.

What is particularly amusing about Lafargue’s satire is that, unlike most cynics, he pretends to assume benevolence. Why do the poor work so hard? Out of their love of labor. Why do the rich consume so much? They want to help create work for the work-loving poor, out of the goodness of their hearts. Relying on what Northrop Frye, in his influential analysis of satire, calls “militant irony,” Lafargue examines the grotesque exploitation of his age with feigned naivete.

“A strange madness has taken hold of the working class,” Lafargue begins. “This madness is the love of work.” He sees startling evidence of this insanity in the events of 1848, when Parisian workers stormed the legislature, demanding that the “right to work” be enshrined in the constitution of the Second Republic, and that the state provide jobs for the unemployed. (The original subtitle of The Right to Be Lazy, omitted in the present edition, was “a refutation of the right to work of 1848.”) “Shame on the French proletariat!” Lafargue exclaims. These “sons of the heroes of the Terror,” whose stout-hearted predecessors had dragged the rich to the guillotine, had become “degraded by the religion of work.”

Marx, in his discussion of the working day, argues that capital sucks vitality, vampire-like, out of the workers it exploits, citing doctors who say that long working hours have resulted in stunted growth and shortened life spans. Lafargue frames the link between work and degeneration in less imaginative but more absolute terms: “In capitalist society, work is the cause of every intellectual degeneration and every physical deformation.” Work makes the population slavish and docile. Laziness, by contrast, engenders feelings of “pride” and “independence.” To work is bestial; to idle is godlike. As proof, Lafargue taps his Bible. “Jehovah, the bearded and rebarbative god, gave his worshippers the supreme example of ideal laziness: after six days of work, he rested for eternity.” Relying on witty inversions rather than logical argumentation, he casts doubt on our love of work and abhorrence of lethargy.

To work is bestial; to idle is godlike.

The working class’s addiction to labor, Lafargue contends, has caused all sorts of problems. In their attempt to provide work for the proletariat, industrialists, “out of humanitarian feeling,” sell adulterated products of limited life span and dubious quality. (Recall the cockroach-filled bread noted by Marx.) These “fakeries” testify to “the horrible perversion of the workers who, to slake their decadent thirst for work, compel the industrialists to stifle the cries of their conscience and violate the laws of commercial honesty.” Lafargue’s heavy irony—his pretense of finding a benign explanation for the industrialists’ actions—exposes their vice more vividly than a sober account of poor-quality products could, by drawing attention to the gulf between their pretensions of goodness and their observable behavior.

The chief problem caused by excessive work, in his tongue-in-cheek analysis, is overproduction. Grinding away in their factories, the working class floods society with commodities. Because the workers make more goods than can be sold, the economy lurches into periodic crises. Warehouses spill over, the workshops close, the laborers go hungry, and superfluous merchandise is dumped into the ocean. These crises of overproduction recur despite the bourgeoisie’s best efforts to consume all they can. Trying to accommodate the proletariat’s lust for work, the bourgeoisie resign themselves to overconsumption. They stuff themselves with truffled capons and fine wine to support the chicken breeders and winegrowers. The sons of the nouveau riche consort with prostitutes “to give purpose” to the laborers in the mercury mines (mercury was a common syphilis treatment). These feats of debauchery, Lafargue assures us, straight-faced, involve great self-sacrifice and discomfort: “Thus, even as they clench their own bellies, the working class has unduly bloated the bellies of the bourgeoisie condemned to overconsumption.” As in his short story “The Sale of an Appetite,” in which a rich man hires a poor man to digest his food and drink for him (inflicting intestinal misery with binge after binge), Lafargue uses the grotesque body to give us a negative image of abundance.

What is to be done? Workers, Lafargue declares, “must proclaim the Rights of Laziness.” Instead of demanding the “right to work,” they must secure passage of a law that limits work to three hours a day. Under such conditions, work will become a “mere condiment to flavor the tasty dish of laziness.” Idleness, not labor, will become primary. Lafargue is blithe about the complications that may follow such an enormous social upheaval. After all, the problem of overproduction—those mountains of excess merchandise “piled higher and wider than the Egyptian pyramids”—signals that a great deal of labor is superfluous. Most crucially, the proletariat’s refusal of work will encourage automation. “To force capitalists to perfect their machines of wood and iron,” Lafargue reasons sanguinely, “we must raise the salaries and reduce the working hours of machines of flesh and bone.” Because the entire treatise is drenched in sarcasm, it is unclear how seriously we are meant to take these proposals. This is as it should be. The satirical mode frees Lafargue to imagine, in unconstrained fashion, new models of social organization.

By seizing the right to be lazy, Lafargue rhapsodizes in the essay’s final, most riotously Rabelaisian section, workers will bring about a carnival society. Idleness, for him, does not mean a retreat into romantic love or intellectual contemplation. It means dancing, singing, drinking, and feasting—a regime so delightful that even many landlords and capitalists will join the people’s party of their own volition (for those who do not, suitable work can be found, such as cleaning toilets or killing rats). Public entertainments will fill the days and nights: There will be “plays and shows forever and always.” Lafargue’s emphasis on theater signals that, at this stage of the treatise, we have entered a Wonderland-like realm of make believe. But the importance of theater to his post-work society also reminds us that social life is something we make up and perform through shared symbols, rituals, and beliefs. The theater he imagines is starkly political. Former bourgeois lawmakers will travel from town to town putting on song-and-dance routines, dressed in straw and fitted with donkey ears. The community will gather for the main performance: a staged allegory of Capitalist France toppled by Historical Destiny.

Idleness, for Lafargue, does not mean a retreat into romantic love or intellectual contemplation. It means dancing, singing, drinking, and feasting.

Lafargue’s fantastical vision of the future rests on a likewise caricatured picture of the past as a lost age of idleness. He looks back to the Greeks, who “had nothing but contempt for work,” to “merry England,” to the old Spain of Cervantes, and to the village feast paintings of the Flemish school, drawing on philosophy, literature, and art to find precious remnants of a leisured past. While it’s not an entirely false portrait, it’s certainly idealized—and particularly dubious when he indulges, excessively, in the Enlightenment fantasy of the noble savage, noting that colonizers “go to happy nations where the people laze in the sun smoking cigarettes, and they lay railroads, build factories, and import the curse of work.” We sense, beyond these examples, at the hazy borderline where history recedes into myth, the faint memory of a Golden Age. In this paradisiacal state of existence, human beings lived in peace and sensuous pleasure. So fruitful was the earth that they did not need to work to feed themselves; they barely needed to move.

In conjuring up ancient history, Lafargue is writing against bourgeois authors of his time who frequently insisted that life had never been better. Writers like his nemesis Victor Hugo have, he complains, “gone digging in the dirt and feudal depravity of the past to dredge up somber contrasts to the present day’s delights.” Lafargue, on the other hand, invokes history to show that matters have, by some key measures, gotten worse. Yet his historical excavations are ultimately optimistic, showing that it’s possible for societies to honor the rights of laziness. This backward-looking optimism is the flip side of the cynicism about the present that underlies his satire.

Lafargue was far from alone among 19th-century socialists in turning to history for models of how to organize labor and leisure. Marx and Engels, inspired by the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, were fascinated by what they called “primitive communism,” the idea that before the advent of farming, people lived in egalitarian communities without private property. In contemporary debates about the proper scope of work, too, the pre-capitalist past remains an object of fascination. The economist Juliet Schor has popularized the idea that we work more than medieval European peasants (because of feast days and the cyclical rhythms of agricultural labor). The anthropologist James Suzman has observed that hunter-gatherer societies like the Ju/’hoansi in southern Africa—who have managed to sustain a life-world insulated from capitalism—spend “the bulk of their time at rest and leisure,” feeding themselves and their dependents on 15 hours of work a week. Lafargue, who says in a footnote that agriculture is “the first manifestation of servile work in human life,” anticipates the arguments of political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott, who in Against the Grain describes the drudgery of agricultural labor: Our species has been “disciplined and subordinated to the metronome of our own crops.” Hunter-gatherers, Scott opines, “have never looked so good—in terms of their diet, their health, and their leisure.” The Dawn of Everything, by the leftist anthropologists David Graeber and David Wengrow, is the most ambitious recent entry into this canon, digging into the distant past to search for social formations that permitted more freedom than we enjoy now.

What The Right to Be Lazy shows us, in its eclectic appropriations from classical, medieval, and early modern cultures, is that these historical forays are a species of utopian thinking. This is true regardless of scholarly caution: If modern works tend to attempt a more grounded factual account of the past, Lafargue cares little for patient historical reconstruction. His allusions are gestural, imagistic: peasants carousing, philosophers strolling through the agora. History is enlisted as handmaiden to the imagination. The study of the past allows us to depart from the norms of our society, to see our absurd ways of living from a fresh vantage point.

This, of course, is what satire does as well. In lampooning the present and fantasizing about the past, Lafargue engages in acts of selection and distortion, magnifying some features and erasing others in his quest to imagine a better future. While Lafargue will not be remembered for the rigor of his reasoning or the meticulousness of his scholarship, he nonetheless deserves a place in today’s arguments about work and idleness. His imaginative flair, and the acerbic wit with which he challenged the norms of his society, provide a model of how literary techniques can enlarge the grounds of contestation, opening up alternative possibilities for humanity that might, in the first instance, be merely speculative. As a work of political theory, The Right to Be Lazy is incoherent and slapdash. But it earns its place in the anti-work canon as a piece of literature: a modest proposal to throw off the shackles of labor to lounge in the sunshine, wine in hand, with donkey-eared legislators prancing for our entertainment.

Charlie Tyson is a writer from North Carolina, now living in New York. He is a PhD candidate in English literature at Harvard, where he is completing a study of idleness in modern literature. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Yale Review, Bookforum, The Baffler, The Point, and many other publications.