War on God! That is Progress!

Susan Watkins

  • Paul Lafargue and the Flowering of French Socialism, 1882-1911 by Leslie Derfler
    Harvard, 382 pp, £27.95, July 1998, ISBN 0 674 65912 0

Paul Lafargue drove Engels to despair. Negotiating with other French socialists over the founding of the Parti Ouvrier Français in 1881, he committed ‘blunder after blunder’ and nearly wrecked the whole thing. In 1889, charged with organising the founding conference of the Second International in Paris, he was making ‘a terrible hash of things’. Wilhelm Liebknecht, the ageing leader of the SPD, had to chase all over Paris finding lodgings for the German delegation. The hall that had been booked was far too small (four hundred delegates nevertheless squeezed in, Keir Hardie, Eleanor Marx and William Morris among them). The translating was shambolic, the resolutions so badly drafted that there was a tremendous row when it came to settling on 1 May as International Workers’ Day. Yet at the end there was a tremendous cheer for the symbolic handshake between Liebknecht and Edouard Vaillant, representing the unity of the French and German proletariats against militarism and war.

Lafargue was one of the first socialist deputies elected to the French Assembly. His maiden speech was heckled from all sides. Engels wrote comfortingly that it was only these ‘violent interruptions’ that had prevented him from making his points clearly enough and bombarded him with suggestions derived from the experience of Liebknecht and August Bebel, who were using their seats in the Reichstag to advance the cause. But Lafargue thought better of venturing into the Chamber again.

‘Why in the devil’s name doesn’t Paul speak?’ Engels wrote in perplexity to Laura Lafargue, as one government scandal succeeded another. Nobody outside France could make out why he was allowing this ‘splendid opportunity’ to slip through his fingers. ‘My dear Lafargue, buck up,’ Engels begged from London, during the early days of the Second International. ‘What donkeys!’ he wrote to Bebel on another occasion. Paul’s ‘braggadocios’ were putting the whole movement at risk, his political judgments were ‘stupid, crazy, unfathomable, utterly incomprehensible to me’. Engels could only surmise that it was ‘Lafargue’s Negro blood getting the upper hand’.

Marx agreed. Lafargue had no sense of shame. It was high time his son-in-law put an end to these ‘childish braggings about his future revolutionary atrocities’, he had told Engels in 1882, complaining that Lafargue’s excessive use of the term ‘revolutionary’ was getting on his nerves. He had rebuked the young man in the sternest terms for the ardour of his courting when Paul had first laid siege to Marx’s daughter Laura in 1866, reminding him that his prospects were ‘at best entirely problematic’ and demanding that, Creole temperament or not, Lafargue should conduct himself in accordance with the customs of the colder latitudes. All the same, he had to allow that Paul’s ‘gallant fights with the powers that be’ did make the fellow sympathetic; and, despite the jealousy he felt at Paul’s encroachments on the attentions of his daughter, Marx had to admit that he couldn’t help liking him.

Paul Lafargue was born in Cuba in 1842 and spent his childhood in Santiago de Cuba, a city of Spaniards and Africans, slave-traders, plantation-owners, merchant seamen and fishermen’s wives, in between the peaks of the Sierra Maestra and the dazzle of the sea. Spanish was the language of the streets he grew up in, and of the enlightened scientific education he received at the hands of some of the city’s most far-sighted schoolmasters, but Lafargue’s mother tongue was French. His parents, middle-class mulattos from Haiti, had been swept westwards to Cuba by the political storms that hit the Caribbean in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Paul was their only child, extremely bright, with a shock of brown curls, lively dark eyes, fine cheekbones, a long straight nose and a very high opinion of himself.

When, in 1851, the Spanish authorities crushed a rebellion on Cuba, the Lafargues sold the coffee plantation, the slaves and cooper’s workshop out of which they had amassed a small fortune during the island’s mid-century sugar boom and relocated to Bordeaux. Young Paul brought with him a love of wide horizons and grand ideas, a fascination with science and a fondness for the burlesque, stimulated perhaps by the African folktales of the house-slaves who had raised him as a child in Cuba, tales which grafted easily onto the traditions of Rabelais and Voltaire.

The world of Second Empire rentiers and merchants which the Lafargues encountered in Bordeaux was one of virulent conservatism. Years later Lafargue would recall with a shudder a country gentleman telling his father that the best way to flush out a republican was to string him up by the feet: ‘if 40 sous fall out of his pockets you can let him down. That one is a monarchist.’ Paul identified immediately with anticlerical republicanism and with Auguste Comte, whose reputation as a rationalist, historicist thinker was bolstered by his premature death in 1857. Lafargue took to Positivist scientism with a reforming zeal that would have done credit to the young Frankenstein: magnetism, mesmerism, alcohol, electricity – the more dramatic the panacea, the better.

Arriving in Paris in 1863 to study medicine, he gravitated towards the far-left student groups and was soon a central figure on the organising committee of the French delegation to the 1865 international student conference in Belgium. The delegation, some two hundred strong, disembarked at Liège station with their knapsacks, beards and broad-brimmed hats, and marched through the town chanting slogans and singing revolutionary songs. ‘War on God! That is progress!’ was the theme of Lafargue’s address from the podium. Back home, the Catholic press inveighed against ‘the horrors of Liège’ and Lafargue and his comrades were expelled from the university. Student strikes followed; lectures were disrupted; there were demonstrations in the rue Saint Jacques; but the university authorities would not budge. Paul’s parents decided that the only solution was to send their boy abroad. He arrived in London in February 1866, blooded and greatly pleased with himself, to carry on his medical studies at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. In his pocket was a letter of introduction from some of his French comrades to the leader of the International, Karl Marx.

The Marx family had by this time exchanged the squalor of Dean Street for the foggy splendour of Haverstock Hill. It was a hospitable, disputatious and largely female household. Lafargue was soon going there twice a day for his meals. Marx himself was taken up with the infant International Working Men’s Association (a fragile coalition of English trade unionists, French mutualistes, Polish democrats, Italian radicals, German tailors and, soon, Bakuninist anarchists from the Jura, Italy and Spain) and struggling, at the same time, to finish the first volume of Das Kapital.

As a secretary on this latter task he had enlisted his daughter Laura, inducting her into the rituals of the Reading Room of the British Museum after she had come top in everything at the South Hampstead College for Young Ladies. In her mother’s eyes, Laura was ‘the real beauty’ of the three Marx sisters. She was also strong-willed, self-confident and a staunch atheist. Arriving at a Hastings boarding house for a holiday with her little sister in the year she met Lafargue, Laura immediately told the landlady that the two girls had no intention of attending church on Sunday and could not undertake to be in before 9 o’clock at night. She was, if anything, even more accomplished when it came to dismissing suitors; with Lafargue it was another matter.

‘Since yesterday, Laura is half-promised to Monsieur Lafargue, my medical Creole,’ Marx wrote to Engels in August 1866. Laura’s sister Jenny reported that they were taking riding lessons together, Laura looking very fetching in her habit, Paul clutching the mane of his mount in some alarm, the pair of them ‘creating a sensation on Haver-stock Hill’. Marx soon co-opted Lafargue onto the general council of the International, His own first-born son, had he lived, would have been just a few years younger than Paul: another dark-haired boy, equally rash and unpredictable; the boy he had disowned, Freddy Demuth, the housekeeper’s son, was probably at the start of an arduous apprenticeship at a King’s Cross engineering works. Marx dragged Lafargue off for long walks on Hampstead Heath and talked him through the entire project of Das Kapital.

Lafargue was dazzled. From this point on he described himself as a Marxist and, back in Paris with Laura after their marriage, devoted himself to spreading the word, knocking off articles for the opposition press that flourished as the authority of the Second Empire began to founder. He moved from editorial office to political caucus to literary soirée, fluttering hopefully around the radical independent women (Anna Korvin-Krukovskaya, Paule Mink and, later, Juliette Adam) who were beginning to cut a dash as writers, public speakers and editors of literary journals. ‘Formerly, Paul would hear nothing of women out of the kitchen and the ballroom. Now he prefers seeing them in the reading room,’ Laura grumbled, stuck at home in their icy flat with an ailing infant and the Communist Manifesto to translate into French. Their second child, Jeannie, was born in January 1870. This time Paul decided to put his medical principles into practice and insisted that the baby be fed on nothing but cow’s milk. The midwife pleaded for a wet-nurse but ‘I put cotton in my ears and steel in my determination,’ he boasted to his sister-in-law, Jenny. Within a few weeks the child had died.

‘I was too much knocked up by the death of my little Jeannie to write sooner,’ Laura confided in a letter to her family later that spring, reporting ‘a great deal of commotion in the working-men’s quarters’ and adding: ‘What surprises me is that no really serious riots have broken out before this.’ Louis Napoleon was thrashing about for a cause that would deflect popular anger. In July 1870 he declared war on Prussia; within a month, 200,000 triumphant Prussian troops had marched into France.

‘The people here are beginning to keep a look-out for Prussians,’ Laura wrote in August. The house that they had moved into on the outskirts of Paris was due to be demolished to give the city’s artillery a clear shot at the enemy, and ‘les bouches inutiles’ were being ordered to leave the city. In London, Laura’s father raged against ‘those idiotic Lafargues’ inexcusable delay’ in beating a retreat: they reached Bordeaux days before the siege of Paris began. Laura was pregnant again and their toddler, Schnappy, was just starting to talk. The town was packed with refugees, the political temperature was running high: after Sedan, a huge republican crowd had overturned a statue of Louis Napoleon on horseback. Paul tore about stoking the fires, setting up a branch of the International and making use of the local press to call for the revolutionary conduct of the war: a course the Parisians were soon to follow, seizing the cannons on Montmartre in the spring of 1871 and proclaiming the Commune.

Lafargue left for Paris at once. He attended a round of meetings at the Hôtel de Ville and rejoiced in the social freedom of the besieged yet liberated city. By May he was back in Bordeaux to find that Laura had called her sisters over from London to help with Schnappy and the new-born Marc-Laurent, who was sickly – this time Laura insisted on feeding the child herself. When the Commune fell three weeks later, there were reports about Lafargue on the desks of the public prosecutor and the commissioner of police. The prefect of the Gironde cabled Versailles for instructions.

In early June, the six of them – Lafargue, the Marx sisters, Schnappy and the baby, now frighteningly ill – set off for the Pyrenees. They rented a cottage outside Bagnères-de-Luchon; Marc-Laurent was too ill to go on. He died, ‘after terrible pains’, at the end of July and they buried him there, in the mountains. The Lafargues travelled on into Spain. By this time it was Schnappy who was ill, with either dysentery or cholera, and a temperature so high that Laura was terrified he, too, would die. The Spanish police broke into their room at three in the morning but found only Laura and her feverish child, defended by the outraged innkeeper. Paul had fled into the interior, guided along the mule-tracks and mountain paths by local sympathisers.

He recalled later how much freer the air seemed to him in Spain, where he was once again speaking the language of his childhood. The provincial governor of Huesca acted as his host in the course of a ten-day detention, during which the French tried and failed to get an extradition order. The governor entertained him with wine, cigars and political conversation. The situation in Spain was still unstable after the revolt that had overthrown Queen Isabella three years earlier. Carlist conservatives, moderados and republicans were vying for control, while the Cuban rebellion was draining the state of men and money. Giuseppe Fanelli, a charismatic Italian anarchist travelling through Spain on a recruiting tour for the International in 1869, had been given an enthusiastic reception in the streets of working-class Barcelona and Madrid.

The conflict between Marx and Bakunin for the leadership of the International was coming to a head, and Lafargue threw himself into a year of frenetic political activity, travelling between San Sebastian, Barcelona, Saragossa, Valencia and Madrid, as Marxists and anarchists battled it out in round after round of splits, expulsions and denunciations. (Sixty years later, the same battles were to be played out more brutally and more tragically, on a much broader canvas.) Somewhat prematurely, Lafargue wrote to Marx and Engels announcing the death of anarchism in Spain.

Schnappy had made no headway against his illness. Marx, who was trying to organise the First International’s final conference at the Hague, wrote to Laura confessing himself a little angry with Paul’s most recent letter, full of details about ‘the movement’ but ‘a mere blank in regard to that dear little sufferer’. Lafargue was, as ever, incapable of passing on bad news. The child died of exhaustion, after a year of suffering, in July 1872.

A newspaper account gives a glimpse of Lafargue at the Hague conference a few months later: tall, attractive, although ‘laughing rather more than was necessary’ – his ‘grinning countenance’ and ‘jaunty carelessness’ seemed to cast doubt on his seriousness. Perhaps the problem was nervous excitement. Paul’s relentless optimism got on his in-laws’ nerves in the hard years that followed, when the Lafargues were living in London, sponging off Engels, as Paul tried his hand and failed at a series of photoengraving projects rather than setting up in medicine, as Marx would have preferred. His perpetual cheerfulness may have been largely defensive: the deaths of his three children had left him with a bitter distrust of 19th-century medical practice. He gives his profession in the 1880 census return for 225 Kentish Town Road as ‘non-practising surgeon’.

There is a palpable sense of relief when, at the end of the decade, the changing political situation in France once more afforded an outlet for his energy and enthusiasm. As the Third Republic stabilised itself and republicans of various hues wrested the Assembly from the hard Right, the Left, so shattered by the defeat of the Commune, began to stir again: workers’ circles and mutualist societies cautiously extended their activities; the birth of the German SPD cheered the Communard survivors; leftist newspapers reappeared.

In 1879 another survivor, Jules Guesde, got in touch with Marx, Engels and Lafargue with a view to drafting the programme for a new left grouping, the Parti Ouvrier Français. In 1882 the Lafargues moved back to Paris to work for the new party and Paul set himself up, in Marx’s sardonic description, as ‘an oracle of socialisme scientifique’. Leslie Derfler’s biography, diligently researched in four languages although occasionally faltering in the narration, elucidates his role in the founding of the POF (an earlier volume covered the first forty years of Lafargue’s life).[*] During the 1880s and 1890s he poured out articles for the political and cultural press, more noteworthy perhaps for their facility, enthusiasm and curiosity than for any scholarly engagement. His many interests included the sociolinguistic impact of the French Revolution, the Oresteia as a study in the overthrow of primal matriarchal power, the anthropology of circumcision and the materialist history of adultery.

It was his absurdist satires, however, that won the widest acclaim: ‘The Rights of the Horse’; the scandalous adventures of ‘Pope Pius IX in Paradise’; ‘The Sale of an Appetite’, in which a poor man sells his digestive powers (rather than his labour) and is forced to endure the consequences of his boss’s over-indulgence-bloated stomach, indigestion and so forth – while the boss does all the actual eating and drinking.

‘The Right to Be Lazy’, Lafargue’s best-selling pamphlet, which remained in print for nearly a century and in the late Sixties and early Seventies won him I new readership, eschews intellectual coherence altogether. Its starting-point is the suggestion that a strange madness has gripped the working class, driving them to work ten, twelve, fifteen hours a day, creating a crisis of overproduction so vast that the capitalists, themselves already so liverish and so weighed down with finery that they can consume no more, are driven ‘to annex the Congo, seize Tonkin and batter down the Chinese Wall’ in order to find new markets.

There is a winning generosity in Lafargue’s solution for the crisis of overproduction: let the mill girls, with their ‘patched cotton dresses and cold, damp little feet’, be clad in the boots and silks and finery they produce; let there be two-pound beefsteaks and bumpers of claret for all. The satire may seem a bit heavy for modern tastes, but there is an open-handed charm in the way Lafargue offered the patricians’ disdain for work to the dockers and draymen (citing Cicero’s ‘what noble thing ever came out of a shop?’) and there’s a Rabelaisian note in the idea of comic entertainment in the villages being provided by travelling bands of generals, politicians and clergymen.

Lafargue spent more time speaking than writing. He was one of those whom the Right described as ‘commercial travellers of disorder ploughing the fields of France’: tramping the length and breadth of the country, that is to say, arguing for the policies of the POF in the hard-drinking iron and coal towns of the Allier, in mining villages where low cottages clustered round the pit, in the militant mill-towns of the Nord. He travelled by train, by carriage or on foot to villages lost in the forests of the Cher, three hours’ journey from the nearest station, where he found his most attentive audiences: the villagers crowded into the local hall and listened in rapt silence to everything he said. Afterwards, they called him ‘Priest’ – they had never been addressed by anyone other than the local clergy.

Imprisoned in 1891 for an incendiary speech to a crowd of striking textile workers at Fourmies in the Nord, he was swept into the Chamber of Deputies at the next by-election by the socialist voters of Lille and carried in triumph through the cobbled streets. He was out again at the next election in 1893, but a block of 50 socialists was elected, among them Jean Jaurès, a short, fat philosophy lecturer from Toulouse, whose oratory could silence the Chamber. Jaurès envisaged a far broader role for the socialist party than Lafargue and Guesde had done. Taking a position on the Dreyfus question, on social reform, on internationalism and the war, it would speak not just for Zola’s France but for a section of Proust’s as well.

For sophisticated young Marxist intellectuals of the 1890s, Lafargue was an embarrassing relic, still repeating the same old saws he had learned in the 1860s. The Marxian movement grew not by enshrining the ideas of its originator but by challenging and developing them. Lafargue’s undue reverence for the works of his father-in-law came under ferocious attack from Georges Sorel and Benedetto Croce (both still very much on the left at that time). The task, Croce wrote, was to ask anew the questions that Marx himself had asked; not to provide a series of little summaries.

Not that Lafargue had to listen. With the legacy bequeathed to them by Engels in 1895, he and Laura had bought a property in Draveil (just south of where Orly airport now stands). Their garden – ‘practically a park’ – lost itself in the Sénart forest, while the house itself, as Eleanor Marx reported to Karl Kautsky, had 30 rooms, ‘not counting outbuildings like the large billiard room and the studio and a large house where the gardener lives, endless greenhouses, a huge orchard, dozens of pigeons, rabbits, pheasants, partridges, ducks and lambs’. On Sundays the house was always full of people. The police noted the names of socialists from all over Europe and remarked on the predominance of Russians – among them, Lenin and Krupskaya, who cycled down from Paris for lunch in the summer of 1910.

On Saturday, 25 November 1911, Paul and Laura went up to town, had dinner and saw a film. According to Ernest Doucet, the head gardener at Draveil, they seemed pleased with their dinner when they came back, and spoke particularly highly of the tart they’d had for dessert. The following morning, Doucet found them both still in their evening clothes, Laura in an armchair, Paul on the bed, an ampoule of potassium cyanide beside him. Paul had left a note, explaining with real pride the basis of his decision not to live beyond the age of 70, when pitiless old age would turn him into a burden to himself and others; Laura, one must assume, knew that he meant it, and took her own decision to die. One can also see in Lafargue’s end the final flicker of his progressive scientism: if he’d failed to prevent the deaths of his children, he could at least exercise control over his own.

Lafargue’s suicide shocked the Left and dimmed his reputation in the decades after his death. Trotsky compared his end with that of Jaurès (‘a champion falling on the field of battle’), assassinated in 1914 for his opposition to the First World War. The patrons of Stakhanov had even less time for the author of ‘The Right to Be Lazy’. In 1905 the Parti Ouvrier Français merged with others to found the Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière, the SFIO, from which the French Communist Party emerged in 1920, under the impetus of the Russian Revolution, while the SFIO mutated into the Socialist Party, which Jospin now leads; most of the far-left French Trotskyist groups debouched from the PCF. One could trace a number of ancestral features through this extended family of socialists, communists, social democrats and revolutionaries, both in the rigid dogmatism and patriarchal bent of some of those parties and in the dedication of their militants during the years of Resistance, the opposition to the war in Algeria and, indeed, May 1968. Perhaps one could see Lafargue’s legacy in the schoolchildren who marched more recently through the provincial towns of France behind the slogan, ‘In strikes, there are dreams.’ Or one could argue, like Raúl Roa, Castro’s first foreign minister, that he brought a specifically Cuban touch to world revolution: a fondness for laughter and sunshine and a taste for roast suckling pig.

[*] Paul Lafargue and the Founding of French Marxism, 1842-82 (Harvard, 298 pp., £30.95, 14 March 1991, 0 674 65903 1).