Lafargue, Paul

views updated May 23 2018

Lafargue, Paul 1842-1911






Paul Lafargue was a Haitian-Cuban-French Marxist economist, activist, politician, and writer, who considered himself black and referred to himself as African in letters to the German socialist Friedrich Engels. One might say with much justification that Lafargue was Cubas first socialist.


Lafargue was born on January 15, 1842, in Santiago, Cuba, the most popular and culturally Africanized part of the country to this day. His father, Francisco/François Lafargue (b. c. 17911803, d. 1870), was a wine seller, landowner (with New Orleans, Cuban, and Bordeaux properties), and tobacco or coffee planter. His mother was Ana Virginia Armaignac/Armagnac (1803 or 18101899). His paternal grandparents were Jean Lafargue (d. c. 17911803), a French colonist in St. Domingue from the Bordeaux area, and Catalina Piron (d. after 1891), a mulatto woman from St. Domingue. His maternal grandparents were Abraham Armagnac, the scion of a French Jewish colonialist family in St. Domingue, and Margarita Fripie/Frijie, a Carib woman residing in Kingston, Jamaica. Françoiss mother, Caralina, fled from St. Domingue to Santiago, Cuba, probably in 1803, after the death of her French husband, Jean Lafargue, Françoiss father, during the Haitian Revolution (17911803). She evidently was pregnant with François at the time of the flight, for he was born in Santiago.

In 1891, when Paul was running for the Chamber of Deputies from Bordeaux, his grandmother Catalina provided proof of her husbands French nationality. This implies that by this time Catalina also had marriage documents, or some other written token of her sons legal relationship to Jean Lafargue. Francisco was registered with the French consul in Santiago as a Frenchman, as evidently was his mother, Catalina. Actually, however, Francisco was a French citizen by virtue of article 59 of the 1685 Code Noir, which provided that any slave freed from French captivity became a French citizen. This implies that Catalina or her ancestors were freed slaves, and suggests that her descendants had documents in 1891 to prove her French slave and freedman origins.

In any case, Catalina Lafargue was among the approximately twenty thousand civilian refugees who fled from the island of Hispaniola to Cuba during the Haitian Revolution. In 1809 the Spanish government of Cuba forced Catalina and her son Francisco to flee once more. She went to New Orleans because Louisiana was the nearest location with a large French population and culture. They remained in the French Quarter and neighboring areas from about 1809 until 1814. In New Orleans the Lafargues were well-established Creoles as well. Catalina apparently never remarried, and little more is known about her.

Paul Lafargues parents married in 1834, evidently in Santiago, Cuba. During the next seventeen years, they had one child, Paul (or Pablo, his name at baptism), and acquired property in Cuba, New Orleans, and perhaps in other places as well. The Lafargues Cuban property included slaves, which they held at least until 1866. Paul attended the Colegio de Santiago, a Jesuit primary and middle school. Between 1814 and 1851, his parents acquired the property that made Francisco a landowner, wine seller, and slave-managed coffee plantation owner.

In 1851, three years after the Revolution of 1848 had eliminated slavery in France and its colonies, Pauls parents leased their Cuban property, La Maison de Saint Julian, with its slaves, and moved to Bordeaux, France. Paul was nine years old at the time. His parents retained possession as well of a house in Santiago. Apparently, relatives of theirs who remained in Cuba managed the leased property and the house. Pauls parents left at this time to avoid the increasingly burdensome laws directed against free blacks and mulattoes.

In Bordeaux, which at that time had a population of around 180,000, Paul studied for eight years under a private teacher, a Messieur Roger-Mice, and then in the lycées of Bordeaux and Toulouse. In the lycées, he received a good education in classical languages, literature, philosophy, and science.

Under Napoléon, a boarding school system existed in which boys spent ten months a year at gender-segregated school for eight or nine years, seeing little of their families. They wore military uniforms. Lycées for boys in Bordeaux at that time included the Lycée Michel Montaigne and Lycée Bertrand de Born. Lafargue evidently lived at home while attending one of these lycées. Lycées for boys in Toulouse included the Academie Royale de Toulouse (established 1345). Lafargue graduated from the Toulouse lycée in 1861 with a baccalaureate degree.

After completing lycée, Lafargue moved to Paris to study pharmacy, hoping to become an apothecary. He changed his mind, however, and enrolled at the Faculté de Medecin in Paris, studying medicine there from 1861 to 1865. His professors included his mentor, Jules-Antoine Moilin, and Carriere, his advisor. Moilin, a psychologist, also wrote on social economics, and was a left-wing radical who was ultimately executed by the government. Carriere, whose first name is not known, was himself driven into exile and began teaching physics and chemistry in London at St. Bartholomews Hospital Medical School (now part of the University of London). Having been expelled from the University of Paris in 1863 for insulting church and state, Lafargue elected to continue his medical studies in London, gaining entrance to St. Bartholomews in 1865 with Carrieres help. Lafargue graduated in July 1868 as a physician, qualified for the Royal College of Surgeons as an assistant surgeon, and practiced at the hospital.


Lafargue had joined the social democratic labor movement in France. Because of his residence in England for medical school, he was accredited as a representative of the Prudhonist French labor party and the French section of the First International in London in 1865. At that time, he was converted to Marxism by debates with Karl Marx at the meetings and at Marxs home. He met Marxs daughter Laura (18451911), and they were married in 1868. They had three sons, all of whom died in infancy or early childhoodCharles Étienne (18681872), François (18701870), and Marc-Laurent (18711872).

For their honeymoon, Paul and Laura were supposed to come to the United States, where his parents owned property in New Orleans, but Pauls commitments to the international socialist movement preempted this trip. Quite possibly, the Lafargues, or the Armagnacs, had and still have relatives and descendents in New Orleans and/or the United States, because this was fifty-four years after they had left New Orleans, and seventeen years after they had left the Caribbean for Europe. If they owned property in New Orleans, presumably someone had been in charge of managing their property during that period, and that someone was likely to have been a relative. The Lafargue family was well established in both Bordeaux and Louisiana in the nineteenth century.


After completing his medical residency in London in 1870, Lafargue moved back to Bordeaux with his wife. That year, he participated in the Paris Commune. As a result, he was arrested, and his papers were burned by police in Paris and Bordeaux. Lafargue founded the Marxist labor party in France, as well as the French, Spanish, and Portuguese sections of the First International. From 1872 to 1882, he and Laura lived in London, and then returned again to France. From 1891 to 1893 Lafargue represented a district in Lille in the Chamber of Deputies. In 1898 he also completed a thesis in law.


Lafargue was a prolific writer, but his lasting legacy is to have introduced Marxs magnum opus, Das Kapital, to France and Italy. In 1890 Lafargue began work on a French translation of excerpts from Kapital that encompassed only the first nine chapters. The selected excerpts presented Marxs theory of historical materialism and class struggle, his distinction between use value and exchange value, his labor theory of value, and the beginning of his scheme of simple reproduction. Published in 1893, this translation featured an introduction by Vilfredo Pareto, which was intended as a refutation. This version of Kapital was also published in Italian in 1894 with a translation by Pasquale Martignetti, an Italian socialist and the translator into Italian of two of Engelss works.

The inclusion of Paretos introduction in this version of Kapital was particularly significant. Pareto approved the theory of historical materialism and class struggle, but opposed the labor theory of value. He did not address the theory of simple reproduction. At this time, he was a supporter of socialism, and in this book, he began the research that led in 1897 to the construction of his renowned general equilibrium model of socialist economic planning. This collaboration between a Marxist theorist and a quasi-socialist economist (Pareto) is unique at this high level of rigor, and has had immense consequences for the theory of macroeconomic modeling for more than a century, despite the later waning of Paretos sympathy for socialism. All national economic planning owes its origin to Kapital .

Although Marxist theoreticians had been writing and talking about trusts for decades, none had published a book on the subject until Lafargue published Les trusts américains in 1903. Using Moodys Manual, he identified 793 trusts, capitalized at $69.781 million, out of a total U.S. fortune of $485 million. Five railroad groups held additional capital. He focused his analysis on the petroleum, tobacco, and steel trusts, in which most of this capital was concentrated, and discussed their leading firms: Standard Oil, American Tobacco, United States Steel, and the Morgan, Gould-Rockefeller, Harriman-Kuhn-Loeb, Vanderbilt, and Pennsylvania railroad groups. Lafargue offered a straightforward empirical analysis, with no novel argumentation or conclusions.

The Right to Be Lazy was first published in French as a series of articles in LEgalite in 1880, then appeared as a pamphlet the following year, and was first translated into English in 1898. It was a sardonic attack on the Protestant ethic that Lafargue argued underlay capitalism. Rather than a right to work, workers had a right not to work, or to work as little as possible. Lafargue took this idea from Aristotles dictum that merchants and other workers had no time to develop the mind, and so were inferior to pure intellectuals or philosopher kings. Practically, implementing this idea would have the effect under capitalism of reducing unemployment by sharing the available paid work. Lafargue, however, argued not only for abolishing work, but that people engage in hedonism with their newly found free time. This pamphlet became the most translated socialist work after the Communist Manifesto, and was translated into Russian before the latter had been.

The modern Zerowork tradition may be said to have begun with Harry Cleaver (b. 1944) of the University of Texas and the two issues of the New York journal Zerowork published in 1975 and 1977. The journal engaged in polemics leading back to the materialist class struggle theory of classical Marxism of the 18481917 period, and against the idealist tendency promoting Marxs philosophical ideas of the early 1840s. These polemics even represented the Russian Communist leader Leon Trotsky (18791940) as an idealist. A liberal strand of this movement, led by Jeremy Rifkin, argues that it is now technologically possible to abolish work. Another strand followed the economic anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (b. 1930) and others in showing that primitive hunter-gatherers worked less than the proletariat in capitalist societies, because they are not forced by capitalists to produce economic surplus value to be extracted; thus, they limit their desires, producing only what is necessary for subsistence. This tradition may be viewed as a Lafarguean movement, in inspiration, one attempting to show that work is neither desirable nor necessary, or even possible.

SEE ALSO Haitian Revolution; Labor; Marx, Karl; Marxism; Monopoly; Pareto, Vilfredo; Slavery; Socialism; Syndicalism; Unions; Work



Engels, Frederick, Paul Lafargue, and Laura Lafargue. 19591963. Correspondence. Trans. Yvonne Kapp. 3 vols. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Lafargue, Paul. 1903. Les trusts américains [The American trusts]. Paris: V. Giard and E. Brière.

Lafargue, Paul. 1972. The Right to Be Lazy, and Other Studies. Trans. Charles H. Kerr. New York: Gordon Press. (Orig. pub.1907.)

Lafargue, Paul. 2002. Essays zur Geschichte, Kultur, und Politik [Essays on history, culture, and politics], ed. Fritz Keller. Berlin: Karl Dietz.


Boa, Paul. 1962. Evocación de Pablo Lafargue. Cuba Socialista, no. 6.

Derfler, Leslie. 1991. Paul Lafargue and the Founding of French Marxism, 18421882. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Derfler, Leslie. 1998. Paul Lafargue and the Flowering of French Marxism, 18821911. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hartel, W. C. 1962. The French Colonial Party, 18951905. PhD diss., Ohio State University.

Keller, Fritz. Paul Lafargue (18421911). Marxists Internet Archive.

Tremblay, Jean-Marie, ed. Paul Lafargue, 18421911. Les classiques des sciences sociales.

Julian Ellison