In Praise of Laziness

Walter A. Ratcliffe, a deaf-blind socialist, collected a bundle of poems and shuffled through Ontario’s alleyways, disregarding the stares and glances of passersby. It was Brantford: 1926. The twentieth century had cemented the ascendancy of monopoly capitalism, with economic development undermining the livelihoods of artisans and craftspeople. Traveling door-to-door, Ratcliffe survived by hawking wares, his pamphlets, and literature on streetcorners in Port Hope and Listowel. The disabled workman refused to remain isolated in sheltered workshops. A teacher-turned-vagrant, Ratcliffe lectured, propagandizing working-class Canadians – the proletarian masses.

In Deaf and Blind,1 an autobiography published that year, Walter A. Ratcliffe criticized Ontario’s anti-vagrancy legislation, detailing his descent into isolation and poverty. Politicians had, decades earlier, imposed policing measures designed to discipline and criminalize beggars and paupers.

“Am I a slacker? Am I a beggar because I cannot endure to be imprisoned week after week, but long to be where the sun and breeze can touch me? Am I a beggar because I stand on the street and wait for someone to buy what may be of service to them? Can you tell me and my class where we can find other work for wages? If you cannot, dare you criticize?”

The Dispossessed, the Lumpenproletariat

Hounded by policemen, Ratcliffe had made a conscious, intelligible decision to pursue vagabondage over confinement, freedom over security. Put differently, Ratcliffe was an impoverished worker excluded from waged labour, a member of the dispossessed – the lumpenproletariat.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Orthodox Marxists viewed the lumpenproletariat – in German, the “ragged,” the “miscreant” – as either reactionary or counter-revolutionary. Academics and organizers alike condemned the lumpenproletariat, a once-fashionable catchword, as unrespectable. Ill-refined. Marx himself, writing in The Class Struggles in France, described the lumpenproletariat – the delinquents, criminals, and outcasts – as everybody “living on the crumbs of society, people without a definite trade.” In Marx’s analysis, owing to his developmentalist outlook, a mainstay of Enlightenment thinking, the lumpenproletariat varied “according to the degree of civilization of [their] nation.” Their exclusion from waged labour, as it were, undermined their class consciousness.

Huey P. Newton’s Black Panther Party, founded in the 1960s, popularized an alternative understanding of idleness and criminality. Unlike their contemporaries, the Black Panthers regarded the lumpenproletariat as inherently revolutionary, since, fuelled by poverty and dispossession, the indigent masses had “nothing to lose but their chains.” A voracious, self-taught reader, Newton was a part-time burglar who shirked capitalist work-discipline. Lounging during the workweek, the budding revolutionary schooled himself about the pleasures of idleness, rifling through Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, and Plato’s Republic. Thrust into politics, Newton embodied what Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called an “organic intellectual”: an individual tasked with developing a revolutionary, working-class consciousness.

Importantly, Newton claimed that “abstractions [came] only with leisure.”

“My purpose was to have as much leisure time as possible,” he reflected.

Non-Labouring Workers Movement

One could argue, we think, that central to Newton’s outlook was a revindication of laziness: that is, the valorization of non-work. The Black Panthers spearheaded a non-labouring workers movement.

In 1883, Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, published The Right to Be Lazy, an interrogation of the labour movement that criticized radicals and reformers for putting work front and centre. By championing a politics of labour over leisure, the workers’ movement had become obsessed, Lafargue argued, with oppression itself. Lafargue wrote, opening his book: “A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilization holds its sway. … This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work, pushed even to the exhaustion of the vital force of the individual and his progeny. Instead of opposing this mental aberration, the priests, the economists, and the moralists have cast a sacred halo over work.”

For centuries, leftists and socialists have framed their projects around creating employment, a “right to work.”

Today, not unlike the Keynesians, many leftists regard employment – accompanied with education, housing, and childcare – as tantamount to socialism itself. Even radical solutions to “social problems” like homelessness pinpoint full-time employment as a prerequisite for self-fulfillment. In labour, leftists mistake liberation; in work, they confuse freedom.

Emphasizing employment over idleness ignores an unquantifiable yet immutable characteristic of human culture – our desire for play. In Johann Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, the preeminent Dutch historian, born in 1872, argued that playfulness drove cultural development. Disorder and disobedience, Huizinga explained, function as antecedents to creativity, shaping our social relations and social structures. He observed the everydayness of play, denoting a childlike tendency among humans to reinsert drama and theatrics into avowedly serious activities: from sports to politics, legal systems to warfare.

But definitions of playfulness, we argue, depend upon the observer. Too often, manifestations of creativity are mistaken for laziness, demonstrations of playfulness for criminality. Our point? Definitions of laziness depend upon, first, the observer and, second, the observed: accusations of idleness are determined, above all, by considerations of class.

Marx and Engels, Germany’s dialecticians par excellence, were themselves not immune to contradiction. Even as they ridiculed the lumpenproletariat, they embraced, as it were, their habits. According to Francis Wheen, Marx’s biographer, the Prussian police gathered intelligence on Karl and Jenny during the 1850s. “He leads the existence of a real bohemian intellectual,” one agent wrote, continuing:

“Washing, grooming and changing his linen are things he does rarely, and he likes to get drunk. Though he is often idle for days on end, he will work day and night with tireless endurance when he has a great deal of work to do. He has no fixed times for going to sleep and waking up. He often stays up all night, and then lies down fully clothed on the sofa at midday and sleeps till evening, untroubled by the comings and goings of the whole world.”

Take another example: In 1848, as Prussian officialdom was overseeing a counter-revolution in Cologne, Engels tramped across Europe, practicing “sinful living”: “At every step I found the gayest company, the sweetest grapes and the prettiest girls … cleanly washed, smoothly combed, slimly built.” During Engels’ “months-long odyssey,” the revolutionist travelled across France toward Switzerland: “It will therefore be readily believed that I spent more time lying in the grass with the vintners and their girls, eating grapes, drinking wine, chatting and laughing, than marching up the hill.”

Marx’s Capital, written between bouts of drunkenness and infidelity, would have never been produced by twenty-first-century academics, since, today, students and scholars are expected to balance research and writing alongside a deluge of administrative responsibilities. Perhaps Marx and Engels, members of the lumpenbourgeoisie, could have learned something from the lumpenproletariat: that is, demonstrations of playfulness and idleness – what Marx and Company mistook for anti-revolutionary pauperism – are fundamental expressions of human creativity.

Revolutionary Potential of Idleness

And what might Ratcliffe’s pamphleteering, Newton’s scholasticism, and Marx’s propagandizing explain?

For one, they confirm the hidden, revolutionary potential of idleness. Their habits, driven by similar impulses, championed a rejection of work-discipline. Their pursuits, however, were rationalized according to different registers. Whereas Marx’s lifestyle was funded by Engels, a bourgeois European, Ratcliffe and Newton’s activities were fuelled by necessity and circumstance. Their experiences demonstrate how considerations of class inform perceptions of playfulness. Following his expulsion from Prussia, France, and Belgium, Marx lived a comfortable albeit precarious lifestyle in Soho, London. Ratcliffe, in comparison, suffered institutionalization and near-constant poverty, while Newton was imprisoned and assassinated.

Really, non-workers, from Ratcliffe to Newton to Marx – the daydreamers, slackers, and loafers – have always been a fixture of revolutionary politics, shaping the ideologies of intellectuals, activists, and organizers. Their experiences confirm David Graeber’s general observation that revolutions are usually undertaken by peasants and craftspeople: an alliance between society’s most oppressed and least alienated.

Why, then, should somebody become a productive member of society, especially when cultures of productivity are propelling humanity toward climate catastrophe?

We are, quite frankly, working ourselves to death. In Jason Hickel’s Less is More, an introduction to degrowth socialism, the environmental anthropologist identifies idleness and frugality as revolutionary solutions to climate collapse. Climate scientists have already concluded that current patterns of accumulation are irreconcilable with long-term sustainability. So-called “green” or “renewable” technologies cannot paper-over an economic system predicated upon the mass-extraction of natural resources, since, under capitalism, efficiency improvements and techno-fixes are geared to produce more, not consume less. Worldwide increases in affluence, spearheaded by colonial and imperialist countries in the Global North, have functioned as a primary driver of climate destruction. Attempts to “absolutely decouple” resource extraction from environmental impacts have proven impossible – a chimera.

By learning from the lumpenproletariat, humanity could recapture the allures of playfulness and idleness, redefining our relationship with affluence itself. In his influential essay “The Original Affluent Society,” anthropologist Marshal Sahlins observed that industrial-capitalist and hunter-gatherer societies traverse opposite pathways to affluence: the former produce much, the latter desire little. Hunter-gatherers, the archetypal anti-workers, had more leisure time, since inhabitants of subsistence economies were concerned with meeting rather than expanding their desires for materiality and excess.

Why not, like Engels, meander across the countryside or, like Ratcliffe, wander through a cityscape? Workers’ movements, we think, have something to learn from vagabonds and vagrants. As Ratcliffe, the deaf-blind socialist, demanded in 1926: “There is Liberty outside. Liberty in all kinds of weather. There I am at least near my fellow men. … [L]et me stand in the sunshine. … [L]et me feel the human tide as it surges up and down.”

Embracing the revolutionary capacities of the lumpenproletariat might allow leftists to cultivate an anti-productivist, non-developmentalist Marxism capable of decentering the fetishization of work and labour. That means rediscovering the victories and failures of the lowest strata of Canada’s working class. As historians and sociologists have shown, the consolidation of private property in Ontario was fuelled by the mass imprisonment of pauperized workers considered unproductive and therefore abnormal, namely disabled people. Authorities erected a legal apparatus designed to punish individuals described by Peter Oliver as the “casualties of industrialization” Carceral responses to vagabondage and vagrancy targeted everybody either incapable or unwilling of submitting themselves to capitalist work-discipline.

How, then, might a pro-laziness, anti-productivist Marxism function? For one, it would undermine the policing mechanisms designed to reintegrate so-called deviant labourers into the workforce. That would demand becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable and abandoning our preoccupation with ridiculing unhoused and workless people as somehow unsafe or dangerous. Whereas a liberal interpreter might denigrate the occupants of a homeless encampment or student encampment as having debased the sanctity of private property and public morality, champions of idleness – the twenty-first century Luddites – would instead valorize their efforts as a legitimate and noble attempt to recapture the commons. That is, the proliferation of homeless encampments and student encampments, which, in practice, amount to small-scale mutinies against Canadian legal institutions, represent a playful and communitarian response to patterns of dispossession.

Everybody should aspire to laziness – not to emulate the idle rich but rather the idle poor. Why one long weekend per season? Why not four? Why a weeklong vacation? Why not an entire month? Socialists should not regard laziness as something embarrassing, as something to conceal, but as something aspirational, something to embrace – to enjoy, to savour.

Championing non-work would require re-evaluating, although not abandoning, the labour movement’s obsession with production and profit, work and wages. Of course, we are arguing for neither alcoholism nor addiction but instead a vindication of sleeping in, of reading for pleasure, of labouring only when fancy strikes. For nineteenth-century intellectuals like Marx and Engels, vagabondage was a lifestyle, a vocation. Insulated from poverty, they embodied an alternative relationship to capitalist work-discipline. Everybody deserves, as Lafargue concluded, “the right to be lazy.”

Ratcliffe, whose reflections appeared in The Ottawa Citizen in June 1916, would himself agree:

“The circumstances into which [workers] were born … render thought impossible and reason worthless. … Their whole life is taken up with toil for a pittance, and sleep, that they may toil again on the morrow. They have no time for recreation, for amusement, for mental culture. Their hard, grinding life destroys in them the power to appreciate and enjoy man’s highest nature. … [T]he more I think of the mass of people of this country, the more I admire the innate goodness of the human heart. … Give us rational economic and industrial conditions, give us collective production and collective distribution of wealth. … I walk hand in hand with poverty, so know whereof I speak. Loss of sight has given me time to think.” •


  1. Ratcliffe, W. A., Deaf and Blind. 1926. Ontario School for the Blind Correspondence and Administrative Files. RG 2-204. Archives of Ontario.

Harrison Dressler researches the history of disability, capitalism, and incarceration in Canada.

Daniel Tubb studies the anthropology of agrarian change in Colombia.