Colin Ward on Laziness

Colin Ward tells the story of his meeting, in the early 80s, with a retired coal miner, who Ward realized was a reader when entering his house he discovered several large bookshelves full of radical literature. Ward asked the miner which book had influenced him the most.

The old miner’s reply was: “You’re too young to know about it” (I was in fact over 60), “but the best book I ever read was called The Right to be Lazy by Paul Lafargue. It influenced me more than any other book that came my way.”

Ward was too embarrassed to inform the miner that he knew the book, in fact owned a copy, but never read it. The irony of situation struck him, for here was a man who worked hard from the age of 12 to 65 but who “cherished [Lafargue’s essay] as a handbook to his ideal society.” And the two authors who questioned the dogma of work, Bertrand Russell (In Praise of Idleness) and William Morris (Useful Work versus Useless Toil), were hardly idlers.

Ward notes the paradox that the idle rich often are the most vocal in praising work:

This observation is epitomized in the play Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw, who yet another endlessly busy man who sung the praise of laziness. One of his characters, Octavius Robinson, influenced by the writings of John Ruskin, declares that “I believe intensely in the dignity of labor.” To which his chauffeur, Henry Straker, who is working with a spanner underneath the car, responds, “That’s because you never done any.”

What isn’t paradoxical, but hypocritical, is the view of that the privileged will be induced to work harder if they are paid more and taxed less, while the poor can make do with less pay and more taxes.

(Colin Ward’s essay appeared in the 21st June 1997 issue of Freedom the British anarchist bi-weekly. The essay was written for inclusion in a book of tributes to the Dutch anarchist Rudolf de Jong associated for many decades with the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.)