Paul Lafargue on working hours and factory productivity: Less is more

I started reading Paul Lafargue’s 1883 pamphlet The Right to Be Lazy a couple days ago. Lafargue was a Cuban-born French writer, a wealthy plantation owner’s son who got into left-wing politics in school (those conservative warnings that sending your kids to college will make them into radicals has some basis in fact!), and eventually married Karl Marx’s daughter Laura.

As you can guess from the title, the book is an attack on the “strange delusion” of “the love for work,” which “drags in its train the individual and social woes which for two centuries have tortured sad humanity” (as I quoted in a previous post). In a later section, there’s a brief discussion of efforts to reduce factory hours in the name of increased productivity:

Meanwhile certain manufacturers in the name of capitalist exploitation have for a long time demanded a legal limitation of the work day. Before the commission of 1860 on professional education, one of the greatest manufacturers of Alsace, M. Bourcart of Guebwiller, declared: “The day of twelve hours is excessive and ought to be reduced to eleven, while work ought to be stopped at two o’clock on Saturday. I advise the adoption of this measure, although it may appear onerous at first sight. We have tried it in our industrial establishments for four years and find ourselves the better for it, while the average production, far from having diminished, has increased.” In his study of machines M.F. Passy quotes the following letter from a great Belgian manufacturer M. Ottevaere: “Our machines, although the same as those of the English spinning mills, do not produce what they ought to produce or what those same machines would produce in England, although the spinners there work two hours a day less. We all work two good hours too much. I am convinced that if we worked only eleven hours instead of thirteen we should have the same product and we should consequently produce more economically.” Again, M. Leroy Beaulieu affirms that it is a remark of a great Belgian manufacturer that the weeks in which a holiday falls result in a product not less than ordinary weeks.

I’d not come across this particular anecdote before, though there were studies during World War I that showed that munitions factory workers’ productivity dropped after a few weeks of working 60- or 70-hour weeks, and that after a while productivity went down because of fatigue, errors, and injury. (Stanford professor John Pencavel recently wrote an article about these studies.)

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