Essays zur Geschichte, Kultur and Politik

Fritz Keller (ed), Paul Lafargue, Essays zur Geschichte, Kultur and Politik, Karl Dietz Verlag, Berlin, 2002, pp392

THIS volume is a part of Fritz Keller’s continuing efforts to provide German readers with the quite rare but valuable contributions of Paul Lafargue to various fields of Marxist analysis. It complements his volume on women and their emancipation, and his biography of Lafargue, part of the latter but also issued separately. This volume includes all of Lafargue’s essential essays on cultural and religious questions. Of the 14 essays, some are quite short, while others are of pamphlet or booklet length. Some are provided with an appended commentary that adds supplementary information and gives a critical evaluation or otherwise useful comment. Iring Fetscher provides a short but interesting foreword. Notes are more than adequate, and an index is provided, as are abstracts in a variety of languages. In an editorial note, Keller informs the reader that he has modernised the German translation when taken from Neue Zeit (edited by Kautsky Senior and Junior), as some terms are considered pejorative today, the terminology has changed since the nineteenth century, or even the content has a different sense in French and German. When it concerns terms like ‘race’ and ‘nation’ being substituted for ‘tribe’ and ‘people’ with regard to pre‑capitalist society indigenous peoples, it is scientifically speaking more correct, but to modernise on the basis of so‑called ‘political correctness’ can be a slippery slope to censorship. It’s better to add a note pointing out the common usage of a term now considered offensive.

In his foreword, Iring Fetscher writes that Lafargue’s significance in no way corresponds to the availability of his works today. Even in France, there is no edition of his collected works. Most of his writings — newspaper articles, magazine essays and pamphlets/booklets — are only available either in the original or as a reprint. His book The Right to be Lazyunleashed a storm of protest among his German party friends. Attacking the glorification of labour and diligence, he insisted that the true aim of the process of emancipation was the possibility of a happy and satisfying life. One understands why this outlook wouldn’t endear Lafargue to those of his contemporaries whose socialism was, as Fetscher puts it, of the ascetic and disciplined barrack-room type. What appeared to Lafargue’s German comrades as his hedonism was, Fetscher believes, wholly in the sense of Marx, inasmuch as one struggles against the capitalist relations of production for the aim of a better life, including a level of consumption that makes one happy. The suicide of the Lafarguesresulted from this outlook. There is a quote from the suicide note explaining that the ageing process would bit by bit remove the joy of existence, thus making him a burden to himself and to others.

Three substantial essays of literary criticism are included on George Sand (‘L’Autre’), Victor Hugo and Émile Zola (‘L’Argent’). Though full of praise for Zola, as Fetscher points out, Lafargue criticises his lack of satire and humour, qualities which he himself used to great effect. In fact, Fetscher describes him as ‘the first socialist humorist and satirist’. This makes itself evident in two essays, ‘A Solid Appetite’ and ‘Mr Vulture’. The first is about a rich gourmand whose stomach and digestive system cannot accommodate all the things he wants to consume so he hires a poor homeless person for the use of his body and organs instead. First published in Neue Zeit, the French edition appeared a decade and a half later in a fully revised version. It is this version that is included. The second is a polemic against land and housing owners in the urban centres and the power they wield over those forced to pay rent. It appeared first in L’Humanité, then as a pamphlet due to the wishes of its readers and SFIO members.

There are two essays on utopian socialism, ‘Thomas Campanella’ and ‘The Jesuit State in Paraguay’, both from 1895 and included in Kautsky’s collection on utopian thinkers, in which his essay on Thomas Moore also appeared. Campanella (1568‑1639) was a Dominican monk born in Calabria, in the kingdom of Naples, who authored Civitas Solis(The City of the Sun), a plan of a communist‑type society. The essay discusses the heretical sects of the times as well as Campanella and his influence. Keller appends a commentary on the latter‑day arguments over the essay. The French original text of the essay on the Jesuits in Paraguay was never published. A note informs the reader that in his foreword to the second edition of his Precursors of Modern Socialism (Stuttgart‑Berlin, 1922), Kautsky compares the Jesuit State with the Bolshevik regime, an idea he returned to in his reply to Trotsky’s Terrorism and CommunismFrom Democracy to State Slavery (Berlin, 1921). It also notes that Himmler saw in the Jesuits and their state an historical prototype for the SS and its own external set‑up. Appended is a part of Kautsky’s own essay on the subject.

A study entitled ‘The French Language Before and After the Revolution’, apparently only published by Neue Zeit in 1912 as a tribute to Lafargue following his death — written in 1894, it was considered that Neue Zeit’s proletarian readers lacked the necessary familiarity with the French language — is absolutely fascinating. It places changes in language within the context of changes in the mode of production and the usage by different social classes as society and their rôles within it change. In his appended commentary, Keller points out that this text achieved historical significance when in 1950 Stalin wrote a series of letters on linguistics, in which he, among other things, ‘refuted’ Lafargue’s analysis of a language revolution in France during 1789-94. Keller goes into the argument and its consequences, concluding that Lafargue became a sort of non‑person from then on in the Russian sphere of influence.

The essays not dealt with here are just as interesting, but the ones above are particularly so to this reviewer. It would be excellent if English versions could be published, as we need not just intellectual stimulation but more humour in our lives. An enormous amount of work has obviously gone into this volume, and it deserves a wide readership. Keller has done us a big favour by bringing an original but almost forgotten Marxist thinker once more to our attention.

Mike Jones