Lightly adapted fromm the article of the same name published in America Latina en Movimiento, July 7, 2020 [https://www.alainet.org/es/articulo/204077].
Translated from the original Spanish by Jane K. Brundage
In 2020 I have frequently found that those who campaign to overcome capitalism from a socialist perspective (in my case, with an ecommunitarian vision) are so pressured by the urgencies of daily action that they lose sight of the final goal of the struggle.
Almost a century and a half ago, Paul Lafargue, the Cuban-born son-in-law of Karl Marx, published his booklet “The right to laziness” (freely available in its original French at https://freeditorial.com/en/books/le-droit-a-la-paresse). Its content is the primary conceptual source for the very brief and summarized considerations that follow (which I have suggested in other texts, and which have to be developed), and which seek to illuminate the objective of our struggle. Initially published in installments in 1880, Lafargue reworked it for publication as a single text during his stay in prison in 1883. Following the preface, the work begins with this seminal paragraph (the translation [from the French] is ours):
“A strange madness dominates the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilization reigns. This madness brings individual and social miseries that, for centuries, have tortured melancholy Humanity. That madness is the love of work, the morbid passion for work, carried to the point of exhaustion of the vital forces of the individual and his family”.
In another of his texts, Lafargue said:
“The end of the revolution is not the triumph of justice, morality, freedom, and other lies … with which Humanity has been deceived for centuries, but to work as little as possible, and to enjoy as much as possible intellectually and physically …. The day after the Revolution we will have to think about having fun” (in “Le lendemain de la Révolution”, published in “Textes choisis”, quoted by Manuel Pérez Ledesma in his Spanish edition of “The right to laziness” | “El derecho a la pereza”, Ed. Fundamentos, Madrid, 1988).
Lafargue will say that the working class, betraying its historical mission as gravedigger of capitalism and founder of a new era of vital enjoyment, internalized the preaching of the passion for work (to the point of claiming it as a right) that the capitalists, and educators, moralists, economists and religious at the service of capitalists inculcated for their own benefit. Remember how the French Revolution transformed the week into a decarious one, such that periodic rest (on Sunday) had to hold out for ten days, and how Protestantism, by eliminating the Saints’ feast days, benefited the capitalist with as many additional days of labor, which were previously unavailable by ecclesiastical mandate. Lafargue came to anticipate the struggle that the bourgeoisie would deploy to obtain legal authorization for working on Sundays (a situation that today has become a reality in many countries, at least in some spheres of the economy).
We can read Lafargue’s theory in light of indigenous community life in the Latin American Amazon. The early European missionaries were both astonished and outraged that the Indians worked as little as possible. They commented that after performing the essential tasks for individual and group survival, they dedicated themselves to sharing tribal rites and entertainment, or simply doing nothing in the company of their nuclear family. And it must be remembered that when the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal shut down the Jesuit Missions (which some authors came to call communist), the surviving Indians dispersed and returned to their ancestral life (of primitive communism), without it ever occurring to them to replicate missionary life on their own account.
In “The right to laziness”, Lafargue cites the contempt for work displayed by the Greeks and Romans. But although he mentions it, he emphasizes the fact that this attitude and behavior by the ruling classes in Greece and Rome was made possible thanks to the slave labor (and to a much lesser extent, wage-earning) by the vast majority of those who performed physical work. Hence, Marx defended the underlying motto (which Lafargue will criticize in light of his principal theory) that says “he who does not work does not eat“.
What Marx had in mind was the fact that in a communist order there could be no drones living at the expense of the labor of others. This would be impossible by following the motto “from each according to his capacity to each according to his need” — the first part of which requires precisely the participation of each in constructing the community fund of goods and services that will be distributed to satisfy the necessities each requires to develop as a universal individual. In other words, to expand fully their multiple potentialities and physical, intellectual and spiritual (cultural-aesthetic) vocations. The application of that slogan presumes the expropriation of the capitalist class and the community administration (from the local to the planetary) of all the means of production and their respective technologies (directly or, in essential cases, through rotating delegates elected and revocable by the community). Each suitable individual thus participates in productive activity to the extent of their ability. There is no unemployment; at the same time, by everyone producing and technology communally administered, each one needs to work less to fulfill the Community-approved Production and Distribution Plan. In such a manner, the working day is successively shortened.
For our part, we have added that the needs that must be satisfied are the ethically legitimate ones, knowing that the Ethic’s three fundamental norms require, respectively, to guarantee each individual’s freedom to decide, to carry out that freedom in search of free consensus with others, and to preserve-regenerate the health of human and non-human nature. The second norm signifies a consensual intercultural life. And the third involves the preservation-regeneration of ecological balances. Hence, the motto that inspired Marx should be rewritten as follows:
“from each according to his ability and to each according to his ethically legitimate need, respecting interculturality and ecological balances.”
Now, and this aspect was not duly emphasized by Lafargue, we repeat that so everyone’s legitimate needs can be satisfied, each one must contribute to fulfilling the quota through the productive effort of the community of which they are a part (starting locally until reaching the planetary, or even farther, where there are human beings living in the Universe). The important thing is that, thanks to the improvement of technology put at the service of associated free producers (and not for the profit of the capitalists, at the cost of unemployment or chronic underemployment and the consequent hardship of millions, as is now the case):
a) Whenever a machine can replace a human being, the activity will be under the care of the machine, so the human being has more time available for fulfillment as a universal individual;
b) When there are no machines capable of fully replacing human labor, the work must be distributed on a rotating and equitable basis among producers, so no one is privileged and no one is sacrificed; and the
c) Length of the workday will steadily and progressively decrease, tending to zero.
The Mexican Constitution of 1917 was the first to establish the eight-hour workday (in the capitalist world, a 48-hour workweek was normal, leaving Sunday free). It should be noted that in the last hundred years productivity has multiplied thousands of times thanks to technology based on applied science (today a single worker performs what a hundred years ago required the participation of dozens — sometimes hundreds). However, the legal workday has not been significantly shortened since 1917, and unemployment is a massive scourge that condemns millions to a life of mere survival or outright misery.
This asymmetry speaks clearly, of how technology has served throughout this century to fill the pockets of capitalists, without increasing the free time of the wage earner to cultivate and / or simply enjoy life. That is why there are those who rightly wonder (ironically questioning the existence of life after death) if there is currently life before death for the majority of Humanity. According to the BBC, in 2019, in Latin America, the legal limit of the workweek (which everyone knows is not always observed) was 48 hours in Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru and Uruguay. And it was between 40 and 47 hours in Chile, Brazil, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Ecuador.
At the same time, we note that in the USSR Stakhanovism was elevated to epitome, with the consequent monstrous overload of work supposedly self-imposed by tens of thousands of workers (but in fact, pressured by oppressive government propaganda), at the cost of their potential universal development. Che himself, so visionary in his critiques of the Soviet economy (which led him to foresee the USSR’s return to capitalism 25 years before it occurred) was a fanatic of voluntary work and iron discipline in “normal” work, with a view to endowing post-capitalist Cuban society with its indispensable material base. However, I have noticed in another text that the same Che came to outline the idea of consulting society about the Productive Plan before the technicians developed the details.
Expanding on this idea, I propose that in the society that wants to orient itself toward overcoming capitalism from an ecommunitarian perspective, the entire citizenry should be consulted about the Production and Distribution Plan (supported by technical calculations). This means, for example, that they can decide whether they prefer to work more to have more goods and services of some kind, or to work less at the cost of obtaining fewer of those same goods and services. Thus, it would respect the Ethic’s three fundamental rules. To guarantee respect for interculturality, this consultation should be broken down taking into account the various nations of an eventual plurinational State (such as the one they recently tried to start building in Bolivia, until a coup toppled Evo Morales, and that now can be resumed with Luis Arce).
This dynamic and the three uses of technology summarized earlier [i.e., machine work; shared human labor; shorter workday], would do two things. It would harmonize the procurement of the necessary arsenal of goods and services indispensable for each person to develop as a universal individual with the free enjoyment of life that each person wants for himself by successively reducing the workday, tending to zero, and thus making permanent the post-revolutionary fiesta predicted by Lafargue.
That said, it is time to clarify why our ecommunitarian proposal does not match up with that of the 1960’s hippies. That movement, strongly marked by North American youths’ rejection of the genocidal war in Vietnam, chose as its central slogan “Make Love Not War”. Acting accordingly, they founded communities where — at the margin of the capitalist dynamics of the rest of society, they tried to live in solidarity and with free love. However, these communities seldom achieved an autonomous productive base needed to guarantee the permanence of their way of life for their children. At the same time, those communities disengaged themselves from the rest of society (in fact, from the vast majority of Humanity), abandoning it to its fate at the hands of capitalism.
Inspired by Marx, Lafargue and Che, our ecommunitarian proposal tries to correct both deficiencies. What we propose is that the active minorities in favor of ecommunitarianism — although they can create small communities of production and life that carry out ecommunitarian principles — not ignore the rest of society and aspire to guide each country and the entire planet toward ecommunitarianism.
Translator’s note: The term Stakhanovite (стахановское) originated in the Soviet Union and referred to workers who modeled themselves after Alexey Stakhanov. These workers took pride in their ability to produce more than was required, by working harder and more efficiently, thus strengthening the Communist state. The Stakhanovite Movement was encouraged due to the idea of socialist emulation. It began in the coal industry but later spread to many other industries in the Soviet Union. The movement eventually encountered resistance as the increased productivity led to increased demands on workers. [Wikipedia]
Teaser photo credit: Paul Lafargue, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1650920