Paul Lafargue, the disciple and son-in-law of Karl Marx, helped to found the first French Marxist party in 1882. Over the next three decades, he served as the chief theoretician and propagandist for Marxism in France. During these years, which ended with the dramatic suicides of Lafargue and his wife, French socialism, and the Marxist party within it, became a significant political force.
In an earlier volume, Paul Lafargue and the Founding of French Marxism, 1842-1882, Leslie Derfler emphasized family identity and the origin of French Marxism. Here, he explores Lafargue's political strategies, specifically his break with party co-founder Jules Guesde in the Boulanger and Dreyfus episodes and over the question of socialist-syndicalist relations. Derfler shows Lafargue's importance as both political activist and theorist. He describes Lafargue's role in the formulation of such strategies as the promotion of a Second Workingmen's International, the pursuit of reform within the framework of the existent state but opposition to any socialist participation in nonsocialist governments, and the subordination of trade unionism to political action. He emphasizes Lafargue's pioneering efforts to apply Marxist methods of analysis to questions of anthropology, aesthetics, and literary criticism.
Despite the crucial part they played in the social and political changes of the past century and the heritage they left, the first French Marxists are not widely known, especially in the English-speaking world. This important critical biography of Lafargue, the most audacious of their much maligned theorists, enables us to trace the options open to Marxist socialism as well as its development during a critical period of transition.
In his analysis of the final three decades of Lafargue's political life and writings, Derfler...[argues] that his subject was not only an original and creative thinker, but also an influential pedagogue who was successful in keeping the flame of Marxism alive in France in the crucial decades preceding the establishment of the Communist Party in 1920...The book is at its strongest in its sympathetic portrayal of a highly engaging figure...The book also sensitively depicts Lafargue's complex intellectual personality...[It is] a fine biography, with many evocative and touching details about the personal circumstances of Lafargue, ranging from his constant requests for money from Engels to the personal effects which accompanied the political prisoner during his imprisonment at Sainte-Pélagie (he took his own bathtub).
This is a splendid biography. Derfler has taken an interesting tack on Lafargue's maturity. He provides a perspective on a militant passing from his prime. This theme resonates with our own times, an era in which one might say the socialist movement has seen better years. I see Derfler's account as the story of a middle aged man's resilience and courage in a milieu in which his youthful effectiveness was beginning to lessen.
[This book is] a valuable asset, not only for persons interested in the origins of France's labour movement, but also for those who want to rethink--after the collapse of what was called 'socialism' in eastern Europe--in keeping with the 'latest Bakunist' (Marx), the consequences of the split between Marxists and anarchists for the subsequent elaboration of theoretical ideas within the social democratic and communist parties.
One of the greatest merits of this study falls beyond the pale of political history. Derfler gives considerable attention to Lafargue as a literary critic and succeeds in demonstrating that Lafargue was the first to seize on the 19th-century novel as the speculum of bourgeois decadence.
Paul Lafargue drove Engles 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...Derfler's biography, diligently researched in four languages...elucidates [Lafargue's] role in the founding of the POF.
Leslie Derfler has written an extremely well-researched book about Paul Lafargue, the son-in-law of Karl Marx and co-founder of the Parti Ouvrier Français. While reading the book one might be sceptical at the outset about what seems to be an uneasy mixture of biography, intellectual history and political theory, but Derfler very adeptly manages to weave these diverse aspects of this account of Lafargue's life and times together into what might be best characterised as political biography...What emerges is a complex picture of Lafargue as a man and thinker, as well as a series of important observations about the tactics of the French and international socialist movements at the time...The author also does a very fine job of rescuing the protagonist from his position of relative obscurity in the shadow of figures like Engels, Guesde, Pelloutier, Sorel and others by presenting Lafargue as a gifted theorist in his own right, making contributions to literary analysis and linguistics. Derfler's book will be of great interest to all students interested in modern French history and the history of European socialism.
Lafargue deserves the scholarly attention that Derfler has bestowed on him. He was co-founder, along with Jules Guesde, of the Parti Ouvrier Français; the son-in-law of Karl Marx, a principal claim to fame among his contemporaries; a member of the French legislature; the author of a paradoxical pamphlet on the right to be lazy. His life with Laura Marx was punctuated by dramatic episodes, and ended tragically with their double suicide…Lafargue is always on center stage, as the narrative covers everything he wrote that appeared in the periodical press, as well as his activities in his own party and in the broader French political scene during the last three decades of his life.
- 384 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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