Paul Lafargue - The Bankruptcy of Capitalism (1900)
The nineteenth century was the century of capitalism. Capitalism filled that century to overflowing with its commerce, its industry, its manners, its fashions, its literature, its art, its science, its philosophy, its religion, its politics and its civil code, more universal than the laws imposed by Rome upon the nations of the ancient world. The capitalist movement, starting from England, the United States and France, has shaken the foundations of Europe and of the world. It has forced the old feudal monarchies of Austria and Germany and the barbaric despotism of Russia to put themselves in line; and in these last days it has gone into the extreme East, into Japan, where it has overthrown the feudal system and implanted the industry and the politics of capitalism.
Capitalism has taken possession of our planet; its fleets bring together the continents which oceans had separated; its railroads, spanning mountains and deserts, furrow the earth; the electric wires, the nervous system of the globe, bind all nations together, and their palpitations reverberate in the great centers of population. Now for the first time there is a contemporary history of the world. Events in Australia, the Transvaal, China, are known in London, Paris, New York, at the moment they are brought about, precisely as if they happened in the outskirts of the city where the news is published.
Civilized nations live off the products of the whole earth. Egypt, India, Louisiana, furnish the cotton, Australia the wool. Japan the silk, China the tea, Brazil the coffee, New Zealand and the United States the meat and grain. The capitalist carries in his stomach and on his back the spoils of the universe.
The study of natural phenomena has undergone an unprecedented, an unheard-of, development. New sciences, geology, chemistry, physics, etc., have arisen. The industrial application of the forces of nature and of the discoveries of science has taken on a still more startling development; some of the geometrical discoveries of the scientists of Alexandria, two thousand years old, have for the first time been utilized.
The production of machine industry can provide for all demand and more. The mechanical application of the forces of nature has increased man’s productive forces tenfold, a hundredfold. A few hours’ daily labor, furnished by the able-bodied members of the nation, would produce enough to satisfy the material and intellectual needs of all.
But what has come of the colossal and wonderful development of science, industry and commerce in the nineteenth century? Has it made humanity stronger, healthier, happier? Has it given leisure to the producers? Has it brought comfort and contentment to the people?
Never has work been so prolonged, so exhausting, so injurious to man's body and so fatal to his intelligence. Never has the industrial labor which undermines health, shortens life and starves the intellect been so general, been imposed on such ever-growing masses of laborers. The men, women and children of the proletariat are bent under the iron yoke of machine industry. Poverty is their reward when they work, starvation when they lose their jobs.
In former stages of society, famine appeared only when the earth refused her harvests. In capitalist society, famine sits at the hearth of the working class when granaries and cellars burst with the fruits of the earth, and when the market is gorged with the products of industry.
All the toil, all the production, all the suffering of the working class has but served to heighten its physical and mental destitution, to drag it down from poverty into wretchedness.
Capitalism, controlling the means of production and directing the social and political life of a century of science and industry, has become bankrupt. The capitalists have not even proved competent, like the owners of chattel slaves, to guarantee to their toilers the work to provide their miserable livelihood; capitalism massacred them when they dared demand the right to work – a slave’s right.
The capitalist class has also made a failure of itself. It has seized upon the social wealth to enjoy it, and never was the ruling class more incapable of enjoyment. The newly rich, those who have built up their fortunes by accumulating the filchings from labor, live like strangers in the midst of luxury and artistic treasures, with which they surround themselves through a foolish vanity, to pay homage to their millions.
The leading capitalists, the millionaires and billionaires, are sad specimens of the human race, useless and hurtful. The mark of degeneracy is upon them. Their sickly offspring are old at birth. Their organs are sapped with diseases. Exquisite meats and wines load down their tables, but the stomach refuses to digest them; women expert in love perfume their couches with youth and beauty, but their senses are benumbed. They own palatial dwellings in enchanting sites, and they have no eyes, no feeling for joyful nature, with its eternal youth and change. Sated and disgusted with everything, they are followed everywhere by ennui as by their shadows. They yawn at rising and when they go to bed. They yawn at their fests and at their orgies. The began yawning in their mother’s womb.
The pessimism which, in the wake of capitalist property, made its appearance in ancient Greece six centuries before Jesus Christ, and which has since formed the foundation of the moral and religious philosophy of the capitalist class, became the leading characteristic of the philosophy of the second half of the nineteenth century. The pessimism of Theognis sprang from the uncertainties and vicissitudes of life in the Greek cities, torn by the perpetual wars between rich and poor; the pessimism of the capitalist is the bitter fruit of satiety, ennui and the impoverishment of the blood.
The capitalist class is falling into its second childhood; its decreptitude appears in its literature, now returning to its starting point. Romantic literature, the literary form proper to the capitalist class, which started out with the romantic Christianity of Chateaubriand, is returning to the same point, after passing through the historical novel and the character novel. Capitalism, which in its virile and combative youth in the eighteenth century had wished to emancipate itself from Christianity, resigns itself in its old age to practices of the grossest superstition.
The capitalist class, bankrupt, old, useless and hurtful, has finished its historic mission; it persists as ruling class only through its acquired momentum. The proletariat of the twentieth century will execute the decree of history; will drive it from its position of social control. Then the stupendous work in science and industry accomplished by civilized humanity, at the price of such toil and suffering, will engender peace and happiness; then will this vale of tears be transformed into an earthly paradise.