Summer 2003

The Importance of Being Lazy

Paul Lafargue’s indecent proposal

Marina van Zuylen

Charlie Chaplin, swallowed by his vocation in Modern Times

Hence, the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working.

—Karl Marx, Manuscripts of 1844

To my mind, there is nothing worse than an idle life. Nobody should suffer that.

—Henry Ford

The breathless haste with which [Americans] work ... is already beginning to infect old Europe with its ferocity and is spreading a lack of spirituality like a blanket. Even now one is ashamed of resting. ... One thinks with a watch in one’s hand. ... More and more, work enlists all good conscience on its side; the desire for joy already calls for a “need to recuperate” and is beginning to be ashamed of itself. “One owes it to one’s health”—that is what people say when they are caught on an excursion into the country. Soon we may well reach the point where people can no longer give in to the desire for a vita contemplativa ... without self-contempt and a bad conscience.

Well, formerly it was the other way around: it was work that was afflicted with the bad conscience. A person of good family used to conceal the fact that he was working if need compelled him to work ... “doing” itself was contemptible. “Nobility and honor” are attached solely to otium and bellum, that was the ancient prejudice.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, #329, “Leisure and Idleness”

As the nineteenth century draws to a close and French critics of fin de siècle Decadence are railing against literature’s surrender to the aesthetics of desire, another epidemic, far more serious, is being diagnosed. This is the “disastrous dogma” chronicled in Paul Lafargue’s astonishing 1880 pamphlet Le Droit à la paresse (The Right to Laziness) published in the journal L’Égalité. An unusual figure in French letters, Lafargue was born in Cuba in 1842 to a family descended from slaves and colonizers. Having partially completed medical school in Paris before being exiled to London for helping to organize the first International Congress of Students, he marries Karl Marx’s daughter Laura in 1868 and begins, through the International Working Men’s Association, a tireless campaign for a shorter workday. Between 1871 and 1905, he assists the founders of the Spanish Worker’s Party, is sent twice to prison for subversive activities, translates The Communist Manifesto in its entirety, and finally, helps to found the SFIO (Section française de l’Internationale ouvrière), the French Worker’s Party. Having made a pact not to live beyond the age of seventy, Paul Lafargue and Laura Marx Lafargue commit a cyanide-induced double suicide in 1911.[1]

For Lafargue, employment had become an ideologically sanctified institution to which economists, intellectuals, and even the clergy surrendered blindly. Agreeing with Charles Fourier’s utopia-driven critique of labor, he balked at the disingenuousness with which the compulsive work ethic was touted as a fundamental human urge that should be cultivated and rewarded. Lafargue saw with disgust that the vocabulary traditionally applied to desire or leisure was suddenly flaunting the glories of labor, the capitalist imperative slyly passing itself off as a crusade for personal virtue and social morality. Work was being used as a didactic tool, slowly eroding the individual’s ability to be contemplative. Lafargue answered this reification of labor by advocating the forgotten virtues of paresse. After all, he reminds his readers, the God of Genesis “gave his adorers the supreme example of ideal laziness; after six days of work, he rested for eternity.”[2]Le Droit à la paresse coaxes its audience to “proclaim the right to laziness, a thousand times nobler and more sacred than the diseased Rights of Man.”[3]

Le Droit à la paresse was published in 1889 by Jules Guesde, who announced that L’Egalité was about to shock its readers with a series of controversial articles that would infuriate the addicts of work. Indeed, Lafargue’s short essays became an instant succès de scandale. He is brutal in his condemnation of contemporary working conditions, and contends that his contemporaries are being dehumanized by their puritanical cogito—I work, therefore I am. They need to be reminded that at the root of travail is the trepalium, a sinister instrument of torture. Nobody, Lafargue jeers, is free from this frightful mechanism: peasants and petits bourgeois scurry like moles without ever “gazing leisurely at nature.”[4] He quotes Napoleon—who had already figured out that “the more I make my people work, the fewer vices they will have. ... I would be willing to establish that on Sundays, after church, shops will be reopened and the workers will resume their work”[5]—and he anticipates Max Weber by calling the Protestant ethic of hard work a contagious form of belief. He targets Plato, Kant, and Adam Smith for confidently proclaiming that it is work that humanizes and not leisure, blaming them for our belief that fulfillment and humanity derive from labor, not repose. Work, Lafargue argues, is traditionally understood as part of our fallen human condition, and should thus logically be viewed first and foremost as punishment. Yet, by putting work on a pedestal as a social good, we have turned our punishment into our highest aim. 

These ideas have retained their appeal despite massive changes in the economic and cultural systems that Le Droit à la paresse attacked. Just recently, Lionel Jospin, France’s former Prime Minister, invoked Lafargue to bolster his push for the thirty-five-hour week. (Thirty-five hours? To Lafargue that would have been unacceptable. He wanted a three-hour workday—no more, no less.) From the Situationists’ scrutiny of everyday life to Giorgio Agamben’s attack on the corrupting ethics of work in Nazi concentration camps (Homo Sacer), one detects traces of Lafargue’s fundamental question. Why is work endowed with such an aura? And what real benefits do we expect from it—that is, when it is carried to an excess, performed far beyond its economic, practical use? 

In this, Lafargue is toying with a question central to Aristotle’s Ethics: which activity is most humanizing (or dehumanizing)—work or leisure? He reminds us that Aristotle looks down on work because per se it does not nourish our higher faculties. (Hannah Arendt echoes this point in her chapters on work and labor in The Human Condition.) It is leisure, or at least Aristotle’s understanding of leisure as a mode of philosophizing, that actually valorizes human beings as such. But work, as practiced by Lafargue’s contemporaries, is eroding just this philosophical humanism, becoming an automatic reflex, a conspiracy, a sinister ploy to kill off introspection. Here Lafargue is not far from Schopenhauer’s discussion of leisure in The World as Will and Representation. Free time, Schopenhauer contends, actually terrifies us. This might explain why so many people secretly hate Sundays, a day of forced rest that fills us with horror vacui. We do not know what to do with ourselves when we do not work. Lafargue, by implication, disdains such anxieties. He scowls at Hugo’s romantic charlatanism, at Paul de Kock’s grotesque naïveté—both have “chanted the nauseous hymns in honor of the God Progress, the eldest son of Work”[6]—and provides laundry lists of work-related abuses. He compares modern ateliers to “consummate penitentiaries where the working class is incarcerated, where men ... women ... and children are condemned to forced labor for 12 to 14 hours.”[7] The Droits de l’homme are a mere farce; they have been “cooked up by those lawyer-metaphysicians of the bourgeois revolution.”[8] Lafargue perceived the theorists of human rights as utopian philosophes blinded by self-righteous abstractions. While they claimed to free and humanize the individual, they were unknowingly concocting a different servitude, a new opiate—the work ethic. Imparted as a privilege, not as a means for survival, the freedom to work was about to become an insidious form of social pressure. There is no question, however, that Lafargue blinded himself to the consequences of his own argument. He assumed that inactivity would be used for self-improvement, forgetting that the workers he defended against exploitation were unlikely to spend their moments of leisure reflecting upon Plato’s ideal of the examined life. It is too bad that Lafargue did not write a twin essay on the equally nefarious side effects of inactivity.

How, then, does Lafargue promote his vision of a fertile, contemplative paresse? If we go back to Aristotle’s notion of leisure—time that a free man (as opposed to a slave) devotes to learning something without utilitarian value—we can begin to grasp Lafargue’s idealized idleness. It is this type of gratuitous leisure that will best promote genuine social progress for in the long run, he believed, only those who have reflected on their condition will be capable of changing it. To bolster his argument, he appeals to the perfect inactivity that Christ preaches in his Sermon on the Mount:

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.[9]

Admitting that it is easier to describe society’s plight than to convince the proletariat that platitudes about beneficial labor are pure perversity, Lafargue pushes his readers to analyze the product being sold to them, i.e., work. He rails: “You have to tame the workers’ extravagant lust for work and force them to use up the commodities they produce.”[10] Only when workers taste the fruit of their own labor will they notice the gap between the acts of producing and consuming. Their reticence to do so was already apparent in the famous water-mill episode, when the poet Antipatros predicted that the mill would liberate women from menial tasks in Ancient Greece. Why did it fail to do so? Because “the blind passion for work, perverted and homicidal, ended up turning the liberating machine into shackles: its productivity impoverishes free men.”[11] The terrible irony is that far from being saved by the blessed machine, “the worker, instead of extending his or her repose ... multiplies activities, as though competing with the machine. O, absurd and lethal rivalry.”[12] This lust for work has killed some of our more endearing characteristics; our ability to be gluttons, for instance, has vanished; work has shrunk our “gargantuan stomachs”; it has debilitated our minds and limited our spirits. The work ethic has turned its victims into unbalanced creatures careening between abstinence and excess.

Obedient workers who sacrifice themselves to the ascetic imperative in the hope of a better life are not only injuring their chances for true human development, but are unwittingly indulging the vices of the upper classes. How? Because by producing more, the worker is enticing society ladies to succumb to indulgence. Because she can buy more, she will end up dancing at more balls, just to make sure her gowns get enough wear and tear.

Society women live martyred lives. To advertise the enchanting finery produced at such cost by these poor seamstresses, they need to commute morning, noon, and night, from one outfit into another ... Saintly souls.[13]

By producing so much at the cost of their lives, workers encourage the bourgeois to keep consuming: “Therefore, as a result of its sacrifices, the working class has egregiously swollen the bourgeoisie’s belly, condemning it to over-consumption.”[14] European workers, refusing to wear the clothes they have produced and too abstinent to drink wine from the grapes they have harvested, have begun a deadly cycle. They force their “poor producers” to run to the other side of the world to find future markets. At both ends of the spectrum, the individual has lost his or her relationship to time and space. 

Eager to prove that production takes on a life of its own disconnected from patterns of consumption, Lafargue implies that even if the worker could get the product for free, he or she would not dream of doing so. Once produced, the object takes on autonomous, unattainable status. To us, this allegedly pious relationship to a commodity is difficult to fathom. Why would the workers not want to possess these objects? But to Lafargue, it was important to demonstrate that this abstinence was part of the outrageous campaign devised against personal initiative. It simply proved that work increasingly masqueraded as religion. Workers were brainwashed to believe that their toil was sacred, never to be used for individual purposes. Conversely, understanding the fluidity of laziness was supposed to help the worker out of this unsound frame of mind. For Lafargue, one of the reasons that paresse is such a bold and sane alternative to work is that it can never become part of any organized faith. Unlike indoctrinating labor-worship, it is a condition that is private, not public. It can only be the consequence of one’s own (ir)responsibility. This is why it is much wiser, Lafargue suggests, to bask in philosophical paresse—to engage in the type of work that produces only what one needs, adopting a style of life that requires only the immediate fruits of one’s labor. 

Like Schopenhauer and Arendt, Lafargue locates in the work ethic the misery of a nation that does not know what to do with its free time. If the benefits of the machine do not include training the individual to higher and spiritually richer activities, then what is the point of having gained this freedom in the first place? Work ultimately makes for more work. As in Arendt’s scheme, work becomes its own teleology:

This madness is the love of work, the moribund passion for work, stretching the individual’s vital forces until breaking point. Instead of reacting against this mental aberration, priests, economists, and moralists have sanctified work ... they have tried to rehabilitate what God had cursed.[15]

Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) very aptly characterizes this relationship to work as a cat-and-mouse game, where instead of working productively, we frequently “make-work,” eager to be giving “the impression that we are working hard at the moment.”

It was amusing to watch the sudden transformation whenever word got round that the foreman was on the hull or in the shop. ... Quartermen and leadermen would rush to their groups and stir them to obvious activity. “Don’t let him catch you sitting down” was the universal admonition, and where no work existed a pipe was busily bent and threaded, or a bolt which was already firmly in place was subjected to ... unnecessary tightening.[16]

From wasted effort on the factory floor to a cramping of spaciousness within the mind, obsessive labor stultifies human possibility. Again calling to mind the Situationists (for whom Le Droit à la paresse, along with Fourier’s Nouveau monde amoureux, was an intellectual beacon), Lafargue’s conception of work fits into a general critique of the misused quotidian:

The quotidian is on the one hand the realm of routine, repetition, reiteration: the space/time where constraints and boredom are produced ... Even at its most degraded, however, the everyday harbors the possibility of its own transformation; it gives rise, in other words, to desires which cannot be satisfied within a weekly cycle of production/consumption ... It is in the midst of the utterly ordinary, in the space where the dominant relations of production are tirelessly and relentlessly reproduced, that we must look for utopian and political aspirations to crystallize ... To read everyday life, what Hegel called “the prose of the world,” is therefore to become engaged in the act of poiesis ... It means ... that we understand poiesis in the sense of a transformative or creative act.[17]

The gravest problem for Lafargue is that the work ethic is keeping us from such poiesis; it involves us so thoroughly in a relentlessly repetitive present that we can never hope to transform it into something else. In an interview aptly titled “Osons être paresseux” (“Let’s dare to be lazy”), Roland Barthes mourns his own inability to be idle. His daily routine is poisoned by nagging feelings of guilt; any interruption from productive work—from the innocent act of getting a glass of water to the sacrilegious answering of a social call—fills him with depression. To find time for laziness would signify a break from the self-serving world of recognizable accomplishments; it would be the victory of creative chaos, of unpredictability, over ritualized and comforting work-habits:

I might be tempted to say that I make no place for laziness in my life and that that is my mistake. I feel it as a lack, and a wrong. I often place myself in a situation to struggle to do things. When I don’t do them, or at least during the time when I can’t manage to do these things—because I do end up doing them in the long run—it’s more a question of an idleness that is imposed upon me rather than a laziness of my choosing, and imposing myself upon it.[18]

These thoughts may well have been inspired by Le Droit à la paresse. Lafargue may have lacked the metaphysical savoir-faire of Schopenhauer, or the Romantic persuasiveness of Goncharov’s dandified Oblomov, but he still managed to sound the alarm: The curse of work is upon us and unless we cultivate the right to laziness, we will turn into the sickly outgrowths of our own relentless productivity. Le Droit à la paresse, aimed at the French nineteenth-century working class, resonates with anybody afflicted by the puritanical shame about idleness that Barthes describes. Besides providing us with fresh excuses for dozing off in libraries and procrastinating in the remainder section of bookstores, Lafargue demands of us the same lucidity called for by Nietzsche, another believer in this undeniable “right,” another debunker of the religion of work. Both men felt antipathy for a work ethic that could barely conceal its ends: to police human emotions, to provide a flow of activity so relentless that it finally allows us the dubious freedom not to think, let alone to feel:

In the glorification of “work,” in the unwearied talk of the “blessing of work,” I see the same covert idea as in the praise of useful impersonal actions: that of fear of everything individual. Fundamentally, one now feels at the sight of work—one always means by work that hard industriousness from early till late—that such work is the best policeman, that it keeps everyone in bounds and can mightily hinder the development of reason, covetousness, desire for independence. For it uses up an extraordinary amount of nervous energy, which is thus denied to reflection, brooding, dreaming, worrying, loving, hating; it sets a small goal always in sight and guarantees easy and regular satisfaction.[19]

“For or Against Laziness,” a compilation of quotations on laziness that accompanied this text in the print version, is here.

  1. “Physically and mentally healthy, I shall kill myself before merciless old age ... paralyzes my energy, destroys my will, and turns me into a burden to myself and to others.” Quoted in Denis Fernandez Recatala’s introduction to Paul Lafargue’s Le Droit à la paresse (Pantin: Le Temps des Cerises, 1996). All quotes are from this edition; all translations are mine.

  2. Ibid., p. 45.

  3. Ibid., p. 59.

  4. Ibid., p. 45.

  5. Ibid., p. 48.

  6. Ibid., p. 50.

  7. Ibid., p. 48.

  8. Ibid., p. 59.

  9. Matthew 6:28–29.

  10. Lafargue, Le Droit à la paresse, p. 59.

  11. Ibid., p. 60.

  12. Ibid., p. 61.

  13. Ibid., p. 63.

  14. Ibid., p. 67.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Quoted in Ben Highmore, ed., The Everyday Life Reader (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 51.

  17. Alice Kaplan and Kristin Ross, “Introduction to Everyday Life,” quoted in Highmore, The Everyday Life Reader, pp. 78–79.

  18. “Osons être paresseux,” Le Monde, 16 September 1979, trans. J. D. Tuyes.

  19. Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 105.

Marina van Zuylen is associate professor of French and comparative literature at Bard College. She is the author of Difficulty as an Aesthetic Principle  (Gunter Narr, 1993) and has just completed Therapeutic Obsessions: Living Life as Art, a book about monomania.

If you’ve enjoyed the free articles that we offer on our site, please consider subscribing to our nonprofit magazine. You get twelve online issues and unlimited access to all our archives.