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 Lefebvres thought. For that reason, Rob Shields
book has to be welcomed, as it is the first and only
book devoted to Lefebvres thought that has been
written in English. The author is sympathetic to Lefebvre
and seeks to show the relevance of his thought.
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. Marxs 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
Lenins Notebooks on Hegel and the Dialectic.
Lefebvre also played a significant role in the rediscovery
of Hegels dialectical philosophy and published
the same year an anthology of key extracts from Hegels
writings. Until then, Hegels 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 Marxs early work and Lenins writings
on Hegel and the dialectic: Dialectical Materialism
(1939) published the same year as Stalins famous
Dialectical and Historical Materialism.
contrast between the two couldnt 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
Marxs 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 Lefebvres 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
Nietzsches 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.'
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?'
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.
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 Marxs
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.
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 Lefebvres
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 Lefebvres
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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