The works of Lefebvre


The Works of Henri Lefebvre

Written by Ross Wolfe

Henri Lefebvre’s work spans a variety of disciplines and fields, ranging from philosophy and sociology to architecture and urbanism. Obviously, this relates to a number of the themes discussed on this blog. A past entry featured Alfred Schmidt’s laudatory essaydedicated to Lefebvre, which I urge everyone to read. Roland Barthes, in his Mythologies, defended his contemporary against “criticism blind and dumb” in the press: “You don’t explain philosophers, but they explain you. You have no desire to understand that play by the Marxist Lefebvre, but you can be sure that the Marxist Lefebvre understands your incomprehension perfectly, and above all that he understands (for I myself suspect you to be more subtle than stupid) the delightfully ‘harmless’ confession you make of it.”

Lefebvre blazed a path, moreover, in the theoretical inquiry into “everyday life,” taking up a thread from the early Soviet discourse on the transformation of “everyday life” [быт] and Marx’s musings on “practical everyday life” [praktischen Werkeltagslebens]. Trotsky had authored a book on the subject in the 1920s, under the title Problems of Everyday Life, and the three-volume Critique of Everyday Life by Lefebvre, released over the course of four decades (1946, 1961, and 1981), can be seen as an elaboration of its themes. Eventually, inspired by this series, the Situationist upstar Raoul Vaneigem would publish The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967), while the Catholic theorist Michel de Certeau released two volumes of The Practice of Everyday Life (19761980).

Russell Jacoby passingly remarked in his excellent Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism (1981) that “Lefebvre’s career in France recapitulates the general development of Western Marxism.” He continued: “Lefebvre left the French Communist party only after 1956, but his earlier activities and writings betrayed a commitment to unorthodox Marxism. He belonged to a group called ‘Philosophies,’ which briefly (1925-1926) formed an alliance with the surrealists. With Norbert Guterman he translated Hegel, Lenin’s Hegel notebooks, and early Marx. He also wrote with Guterman a book that represented a high point of French Western Marxism in this earlier period, La Conscience mystifiée. Published in 1936, the title itself hints of History and Class Consciousness… rewritten in the context of the struggle against fascism.”

George Lichtheim in his survey of Marxism in Modern France (1966) likewise heaped praise upon Lefebvre, describing him as follows:

The Marxian concepts of “alienation” and “total man” were already central to Lefebvre’s interwar reflections, from the time he came across Marx’s early philosophical writings. The “Paris Manuscripts” of 1844 had been a revelation for Marxists of Lefebvre’s generation; and the echo of this discovery resounds throughout the concluding chapter of Le Matérialisme dialectique: first published in 1939, when — as the author remarked in 1957 — communists still tended to express disdain for the topic. Though politically orthodox, Lefebvre in 1939 was already going against the official line, which in those years was based on the Leninist interpretation of Marxism as a doctrine centered on the analysis of capitalism’s political and economic contradictions. In fairness it has to be remembered that this was itself a reaction to the academic habit of treating Marx as the author of a heretical philosophy of history. Under the impulsion of the Russian Revolution and Leninism, this approach gave way after 1917 to the realization that Marxism was meant to be a theory of the proletarian revolution. As usually happens in such cases, the discovery was accompanied by an impatient rejection of all nonpolitical interests, and in particular of long-range philosophical speculation centered on Marx’s youthful writings. When Lefebvre in 1957 recalled that between 1925 and 1935 French Marxists like himself had discovered the immediate political relevance of their own doctrine, he went on to note that the great economic crisis of 1929-1933, and the practical problems facing the USSR , reinforced the stress on the politico-economic theme: not indeed “economics” in the conventional academic sense, but the political economy of capitalism and socialism. A writer concerned with topics such as alienation and l’homme total could not in the circumstances expect a sympathetic hearing even from political friends.

Others point out that Lefebvre by no means rejected the teachings of Lenin when it came to Marx and Marxism, however. Daniel Bensaïd also recalled that in 1947, “Lefebvre had published a book (unjustly forgotten) on Lenin’s thought.” Kevin Anderson, the Marxist-Humanist scholar, has also praised Lefebvre as one of the few Western Marxists to engage extensively and explicitly with Lenin’s prewar notebooks on Hegel and philosophy. “It was in France on the eve of World War II that Lenin’s Hegel notebooks first began to get some serious public discussion by Western Marxists,” writes Anderson in Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism. “Henri Lefebvre and Norbert Guterman, two unorthodox members of the French Communist party, wrote a 130-page introduction to a French edition of Lenin’s Hegel notebooks, which appeared in 1938 under the title Cahiers sur la dialectique de Hegel, published by the prestigious Paris publishing house Gallimard.”

Anderson continues:

Guterman and Lefebvre begin their introduction by contending that in Lenin’s Hegel notebooks, “the reader finds himself in the presence of ideas which, taken in all their significance, in the totality of their aims and interests, support the comparison with the greatest philosophical works.” At the same time, they write that “Lenin was not one of those men for whom action is opposed to thought,” calling attention to the date of composition of the Hegel Notebooks, in the midst of World War I: “Lenin reads Hegel at the moment when the unity of the industrial world tears itself apart, when the fragments of this unity, which was thought to have been realized, violently collide with one another: when all of the contradictions unchain themselves. The Hegelian theory of contradiction shows him that the moment when the solution, a higher unity, seems to move further away, is sometimes that [moment] when it is approaching.” They write that the virulent nationalism Lenin faced in 1914 “already anticipates fascist ideology,” linking the Hegel notebooks to the concrete problems of the 1 930s. For Lenin in 1914 and after, “his vision” drawn from the Hegel notebooks “prepares his action.”

Lenin, they claim, neither accepted Hegel uncritically nor rejected him. For Lenin, they write: “The critical reading [of Hegel] is also a creative act Lenin judges Hegel with a severity that one could not have except toward oneself — towards one’s past, at the moment one surmounts it.” In this sense Lenin is critically appropriating classical German philosophy for the working class, as Marx and Engels had urged. Furthermore, the Hegel notebooks shed new light on the problem of how Marxism is to appropriate Hegel. For most Marxists, dialectical method is the only valuable legacy of Hegel, and for them, “the content of Hegelianism needs to be rejected.” For some, Hegel’s method is the point of departure for a materialist dialectic. For others, Hegel’s dialectic becomes materialist through Marxism, which is “a theory of real forces, their equilibrium and the rupture of this mechanical equilibrium.” Guterman and Lefebvre contend that for Lenin in the Hegel Notebooks, these issues are “posed in a much more profound and concrete manner.” They give as an example Lenin’s discussion of the final chapter of Hegel’s Science of Logic, “The Absolute Idea”: “Hegelian idealism has an objective aspect His theory of religion and the state is unacceptable. However, as Lenin remarks, the most idealistic chapter of Hegel’s Logic, that on the Absolute Idea, is at the same time the most materialist.” Therefore, any “inversion” of Hegel by Marxists “cannot be a simple operation.”

You can download a number of Lefebvre’s work here. See also the free PDF collections of works by Roland BarthesWalter Benjamin, and Leon Trotsky hosted on this site.

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Primary literature
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  1. Dialectical Materialism (1938)
  2. The Critique of Everyday Life, Volume 1: Introduction (1946)
  3. “Marxisme et Sociologie” (1948)
  4. “Perspectives de la Sociologie Rurale”(1953)
  5. Probleme des Marxismus, heute(1958, translated by Alfred Schmidt 1966)
  6. Introduction to Modernity: Twelve Preludes (September 1959-May 1961)
  7. The Critique of Everyday Life, Volume 2: Foundations for a Sociology of the Everyday (1961)
  8. “Utopie expérimentale: Pour un nouvel urbanisme” (1961)
  9. “Marxisme et Politique: Le marxisme a-t-il une théorie politique ?” (1961)
  10. “Réflexions sur le structuralisme et l’histoire” (1963)
  11. Metaphilosophy (1965)
  12. The Sociology of Marx (1966, translated by Norbert Guterman in 1968)
  13. Sprache und Gesellschaft (1966)
  14. Everyday Life in the Modern World(1968)
  15. “Reply to Roderick Christholm” (1969)
  16. “Les paradoxes d’Althusser” (1969)
  17. Aufstand in Frankreich: Zur Theorie der Revolution in den hochindustrialisierten Ländern (1969)
  18. The Urban Revolution (1970)
  19. “La classe ouvrière est-elle révolutionnaire?” (1971)
  20. “L’avis du sociologue, État ou Non-État?” (1971)
  21. The Survival of Capitalism: Reproduction of the Relations of Production(1973)
  22. The Production of Space (1974)
  23. Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment(unpublished, 1970s)
  24. “Marxism Exploded” (1976)
  25. The Critique of Everyday Life, Volume 3: From Modernity to Modernism (Towards a Metaphilosophy of Daily Life)(1981)
  26. Interview on the Situationists (1983)
  27. Rhythmanalysis (1991)
  28. Writings on Cities (collection, 1996)
  29. State, Space, World: Selected Essays(collection, 2009)

Secondary literature
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  1. Alfred Schmidt, “Henri Lefebvre and Contemporary Interpretations of Marx” (1972)
  2. Andy Merrifield, Henri Lefebvre: A Critical Introduction (2006)
  3. Kanishka Goonewardena, Stefan Kipfer, Richard Milgrom, Christian Schmid (eds.), Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre (2008)
  4. Christian Schmid, “Henri Lefebvre, the Right to the City, and the New Metropolitan Mainstream” (2009)
  5. Lukasz Stanek, Henri Lefebvre on Space: Architecture, Urban Research, and the Production of Theory (2011)
  6. Benjamin Fraser, Toward an Urban Cultural Studies: Henri Lefebvre and the Humanities (2015)

 

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