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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Henri Lefebvre - French Marxist Humanist
Review of Rob Shields Henri Lefebvre: Love and Struggle - Spatial Dialectics (London: Routledge, 2000)

Liam O Ruairc

Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) is an independent French Marxist theoretician. An original, non-conformist thinker, Lefebvre was an extremely prolific writer: in his lifetime, he published more than 60 books and 300 articles! His work covered a very wide range of subjects: from introductions to Marxist thought to theories of space and urbanism. Lefebvre has been more influential that has been acknowledged. In spite of his importance, Henri Lefebvre remains relatively unknown today. Compared to what has been published on Althusser or the Frankfurt School for example, very few studies have been devoted to Lefebvre’s thought. For that reason, Rob Shield’s book has to be welcomed, as it is the first and only book devoted to Lefebvre’s thought that has been written in English. The author is sympathetic to Lefebvre and seeks to show the relevance of his thought.

Henri Lefebvre is famous for having written many introductions to and edited a number of anthologies of the writings of Hegel, Marx and Lenin. What is significant about Lefebvre is that he was the first to show the importance of and make accessible to the general public key writings of Marx and Lenin that were unknown then outside Russia and Germany. Marx’s early writings, such as the famous 1844 Manuscripts, were published for the first time in Moscow in 1932. Lefebvre, in collaboration with Norbert Guterman, was responsible for the first foreign translations of these writings in a foreign language - his Selections from Karl Marx were published in 1934. In 1938, Lefebvre was also responsible for the first translation in a foreign language of Lenin’s Notebooks on Hegel and the Dialectic. Lefebvre also played a significant role in the rediscovery of Hegel’s dialectical philosophy and published the same year an anthology of key extracts from Hegel’s writings. Until then, Hegel’s philosophy was virtually unknown in France (Wahl and Kojeve had just begun their Hegel seminar), and Marxists ignored it. Lefebvre wrote the first major theoretical work to advance a new reconstruction of Marxism on the basis of Marx’s early work and Lenin’s writings on Hegel and the dialectic: Dialectical Materialism (1939) published the same year as Stalin’s famous Dialectical and Historical Materialism.

The contrast between the two couldn’t be greater. At a time when Marxism was frozen into dogma and into a catechism, the relevance and vitality of Lefebvre's open and critical Marxism can be understood. His conceptual innovation is to have shown the centrality within Marx’s thought of the concepts of “humanism”, “alienation”, “fetishism”, “praxis”, “total man”. The originality of Lefebvre is evident if one compares his methodological understanding of Marx and Lenin in his book on dialectical materialism with the writings of Maurice Cornforth on the same subject, or for a recent example, John Rees’ Algebra of Revolution. Two other important works by Lefebvre on the same topic not discussed by Shields are Marxism (1948) and his 1956 book on Lenin. Alienation and the dialectic were the cornerstone of Lefebvre’s reading of Marx. The author notes that by extending alienation into the key concept in an entire critique of modern life, Lefebvre oversimplified Marx and Engels’ different uses of the concept of alienation. By extending the scope and meaning of the concept, Lefebvre had somewhat misread Marx. However, it is debatable to say that for Marx, alienation was specific and restricted to the economic sphere. Shields is right to call Lefebvre the 'Father of the Dialectic', but it is unfortunate that he does not discuss some of his contributions in more detail. In 1947 for example, Lefebvre wrote a book called Formal Logic and Dialectical Logic. This work is a brilliant systematic treatise of logic written from the point of view of Marxism whose importance has not been recognised enough. His philosophical testament, Return of the Dialectic (1986) is also virtually unknown. Lefebvre is also significant for being one of the first (if not the first) Marxist to recognise the importance of Nietzsche. In 1939, Lefebvre published a book on Nietzsche defending him against his appropriation by fascist thinkers and his vilification by Marxist intellectuals. This first interwar attempt at an anti-fascist reading of Nietzsche is perhaps the best Marxist analysis of the thinker that has been written. Lefebvre integrated many of Nietzsche’s best insights into his own thought. When writing about other thinkers, Shields is right to note that Lefebvre is 'an exemplary reader of theory as well as a radical producer of non-systematic theories but key insights and methodologies. In so far as this is true his work remains open-ended: a toolkit for progressive action now.'

For Lefebvre, dialectics and the study of alienation were not to be limited to the sphere of economics, but were to be extended to the whole of social life. He innovated by extending Marxist analysis to the sphere of 'every day life' and problems of urbanism - questions that had until then been ignored by the Left. Lefebvre witnessed after the second world war the rapid modernisation of French everyday life as well as its growing urbanisation. He had many original and interesting observations about 'every day life' and its alienations. His critique of the "bureaucratic society of controlled consumption" is reminiscent of Marcuse, but suffers from a certain impressionism. Lefebvre made a more significant contribution by making the city an object for Marxist thought. Lefebvre proceeded to analyse the impact of changing capitalist social relations of production upon the quality of access and participation in the urban. Lefebvre also wrote a number of sociological analysis of rural life. For Shields, Lefebre's lasting contribution will be his 1974 book on the Production of Space. Lefebvre redirected historical materialism towards a spatial problematic. On this topic, Shields is very informative, it is the best part of the book. Lefebvre transcoded the dialectic into spatial terms. 'What exactly is the mode of existence of social relationships?' asked Lefebvre.

The study of space offers an answer according to which the social relations of production have a social existence to the extent that they have a spatial existence; they project themselves into a space, becoming inscribed there, and in the process producing that space itself. Failing this, these relations would remain in the realm of ‘pure’ abstraction - that is to say in the realm of representations and hence of ideology: the realm of verbalism, verbiage and empty words.

From this, Lefebvre develops a rich theory of the development of different systems of spatiality in different historical periods. His history of the different “modes of production of space” completes Marx’s analysis of modes of production in urban, attitudinal and environmental terms. This is not just a theoretical question. A communist revolution must not only change the relationship of the proletariat to the means of production, but also create a new spatialisation. As Ed Soja noted, social struggles must become consciously and politically spatial struggles to regain control of the social production of space. His theory provides a bridge from Marxist thought to environmental politics. Lefebvre advocated alternative and revolutionary restructurations of institutionalised discourses of space and new modes of spatial praxis ("differential space"), such as that by squatters or Third World slum dwellers, who fashion a spatial presence and practice outside of the norms of the prevailing enforced capitalist spatialisation ("abstract space"). The reappropriation of space is a significant challenge for Marxist Humanists. As a dialectician, Lefebvre well understood that space and time were two categories that could not be separated. Before his death, he was working on a "rythmanalysis", which was to link different rythms (cyclical rythms, linear rythms etc) with different modes of spatiality.

Shield's book is more about Lefebvre for consumption for cultural studies than the relevance of his thought for Marxism. The author goes a great deal into the influence of romanticism and surrealism on Lefebvre's thought, its relation with the current debates about postmodernism, what his analysis of the everyday can contribute to cultural studies, the polemics with existentialism and structuralism, or the relations with situationism. All very interesting, but a discussion of Lefebvre’s four volume treatise on the Marxist theory of the state, of his contributions to rural sociology would have been welcome. Had the book been written by a Marxist Humanist, the emphasis would have been different. In short: too much postmodern cultural studies, not enough dialectical philosophy. For that reason, the book perhaps does not emphasise enough how Lefebvre’s thought was always intimately connected to political practice. Although he worked most of his life as a university lecturer, he was never an “academic Marxist”. As opposed to the Frankfurt School for example, Lefebvre always sough to unite thought and action. He was a member of the Communist Party of France from 1928 until he was expelled in 1957 for his heretical ideas. He later associated with a variety of left wing movements and causes. Just before his death for example, he was highlighting the difficult prison conditions of Action Directe members. His books are echoes of all those struggles. One must read his books on urbanism and the city for example, with the battles between the local communities and the planners and speculators regarding “redevelopment” and “slum clearance” in mind. His studies on rural sociology are related to the struggles of peasantry. Lefebvre recognised the importance of so-called new social movements, like anti racism or the struggles of oppressed nationalities like the Basques. The author is critical of Lefebvre for not putting enough emphasis on gender problems, but this is more of a politically correct cheap shot than a well substantiated analysis. But Shield's book is to be welcomed for defending the contemporary relevance of Henri Lefebvre's contributions.



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