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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

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