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Henri Lefebvre, 1901-1991

Heori Lefebvre, 1901-1991
Henri Lefebvre, the most prolific of French Marxist intellectuals,
died during the night of 28-29 June 1991, less than a fortnight after
his ninetieth birthday. During his long career, his work has gone
in and out of fashion several times, and has influenced the
development not only of philosophy but also of sociology, geography, political science and literary criticism.

Born in the Landes of South-West France in 1901, Lefebvre
went to study philosophy in Paris at the age of twenty, and soon
became attracted to Marxism, which was certainly not taught at
the university, but was being espoused by many young intellectuals in the aftermath of the October revolution. Along with Paul
Nizan, Georges Friedmann, Georges Politzer and other young
philosophers, Lefebvre was active in a succession of short-lived
journals during the 1920’s and early 1930s, which successfully
introduced Marxism into the mainstream of French intellectual
life, at least on the Left. He shared some of the artistic avantgardism of the surrealists, and like them was drawn towards
communism as a practical means of implanting his aspirations.

Lefebvre joined the French Communist Party in 1928 and for
most of the next thirty years he toed the political line, in return for
which, he secured a margin of tolerance for his rather heterodox
interpretation of Marxism, which sat uncomfortably with the
stalinisme ordinaire of the French Communist Party (PCF).

Lefebvre’s great energy and erudition were largely responsible for popularising the early writings of Marx, some of which he
translated into French in 1933, and which served to focus Lefebvre’s
own humanist interpretation of Marx. He delved deeply into the
Hegelian ancestry of Marxism, from which he derived an abiding
preoccupation with dialectical thought, and he read widely in
German philosophy, finding particular affinities with Nietzsche,
on whom he published a book in 1939, but also with Schelling and
Heidegger, about whom he was publicly more reticent. This
activity, carried out while he was teaching philosophy in provinciallycees, culminated in his influential book Dialectical Materialism. Published in 1939, within a few weeks of Stalin’s infamous Dialectical and Historical Materialism, Lefebvre’s book
was the antithesis of diamat, and was therefore pointedly ignored
by party circles. Banned during the occupation, it was for many
years a bestseller after the war. Lefebvre affirmed the superiority
of Hegel’s dialectic over formal logic, based on the dialectic’s
attempt to achieve a synthesis of the concept and its content, and
therefore a synthesis of thought and being. He accepted Marx’s
criticisms of Hegel’s theory of the state, religion and alienation,
based on the perception that while Hegel sought to derive the
content from the concept, Marx saw the need to enable the content
to direct the development of the concept. The resulting ‘dialectical
materialism’, in Lefebvre’s view, transcended both idealism and
materialism, and oriented the dialectic towards a resolution of
contradictions in practical activity, or Praxis. In historical terms,
he thought it would eventuate in the practical realisation of the full
potential of human existence: Total Man. The patriarchal resonance of Lefebvre’s Marxist humanism was wholly consonant
with the intellectual climate of the period, but was scarcely
attenuated in later times as he prided himself on a seductive charm


and virility that were almost legendary even in his old age.

After the war, in which he acquired a distinguished Resistance
record, Lefebvre took a job in broadcasting in Toulouse, which
left him time for a flurry of publications on Marxism and philosophy, including his successful popular account Le Marxisme
(1948) in the ‘Que sais-je?’ paperback series. Developing his
interpretation of the early Marx, Lefebvre argued that alienation
was a fundamental structure of human practice. In broad outline,
every human activity was characterised by a three-stage evolution
in which initially spontaneous forms of order were shaped into
rational organising structures, which finally lent themselves to
abuse as a fetishized system of oppression. Lefebvre applied this
analysis, for example, to economics, where division of labour
eventually turns into the exploitation of workers; to politics,
where effective administration (or leadership) decays into a
coercive State (or party) apparatus; and even to philosophy where
clarity of thinking finally hardens into a rigid ideology which
those in power can wield as a blunt instrument.

Lefebvre’s libertarian tendencies made him more popular with
the social democratic and Christian democratic Left than with
hard-line Stalinists in the PCF. However, philosophical debate in
post-war France was not an occupation for the faint-hearted, and
Lefebvre was not above accepting his share of the hatchet-work.

His L’Existentialisme (1946), which he later disavowed, was
probably the low-point of his work. On the one hand it was a
virulent attack on Sartrean existentialism, then in its heyday, and
therefore on philosophical positions which were in many respects
close to his own. On the other hand, it included a posthumous
attack on Paul Nizan, who had left the PCF over the MolotovRibbentrop pact in 1939, and whom Lefebvre ignobly accused of
having been a police spy.

The tightening of the Cold War left Lefebvre exposed and
uncomfortable. He accepted a research post in sociology and
temporarily abandoned philosophy, though not without publishing an obligatory self-criticism. Zhdanov had set the tone and
every party intellectual had to take a turn at correcting his or (more
rarely) her own previous errors and deviations. Lefebvre’s halfrejection of his earlier neo-Hegelianism was more tortuous than

Sociology was in comparison a safe haven. Despite a long
intellectual tradition going back to Montesquieu, Comte and
Durkhein, French sociology was not regarded as politically sensitive. It was not a secondary school subject, unlike philosophy,
and though it was taught in universities it mainly flourished in
non-teaching research centres, where it was often linked to the
rapidly growing requirements of the national planning agency.

Since the French approach tends to be highly theoretical, Lefebvre
was one of many philosophers (including Raymond Aron and
Edgar Morin) who made a comfortable transition to sociology.

Drawing on his Marxist humanist framework, Lefebvre made
distinguished and widely read contributions to both urban and
rural sociology, to sociolinguistics, and to the sociology of
everyday life. To some extent he is now regarded as having been
a founder of some of these areas of study, and tributes in French

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

sociological journals have focused on this as his major achievement. He eventually held chairs of sociology in the universities of
Strasbourg and then N anterre.

After the traumatic events of 1956, Lefebvre returned to
philosophical debate, directing withering criticisms against the
dogmatism of Stalin and his French followers. He diagnosed a
fundamental crisis in philosophy, and suggested that it had
reached the point at which it was impossible to make any general
pilosophical assertions without falling into mystification. He
thought it might be prudent for ontological or cosmological
statements (about the world, nature, matter, and the place of man
in the universe) to be left to poets and musicians rather than
philosophers. As for Marxist philosophy, he thought it should
eschew systematisation and sharpen the critical edge of the
dialectical method. Linking with oppositional movements in
Eastern Europe and with non-communist (often Trotskyist) intellectuals in France, Lefebvre became energetically anti-Stalinist in
the late 1950s, helping to found the independent Marxist reviews
Arrguments and Socialisme et barbarie, and developing a criticism of the bureaucratization of societies East and West. His
expulsion from the PCF in 1958 surprised no one and stimulated
a succession of innovative works, disconcertingly mixing sociology, literary analysis, philosophy and poetry in attempts to break
down disciplinary barriers and to free Marxist thinking from its
self-imposed limitations. His autobiographical La Somme et le
reste (1960) is strikingly original in this respect, anticipating
some of the textual strategies of post-structuralism and dealing
with his opponents in the manner of Mohammed Ali (,float like a
butterfly, sting like a bee’).

As the fifties turned into the sixties, the French intellectual
, scene was divided between the rising power of the structuralist
theorists and the flagging inspirations of the existentialists and
humanists. Lefebvre became one of the foremost opponents of the
structuralo-marxists. Writing in the provocatively named journal
L’Homme et la societe, he castigated writers like Levi-Strauss and
Foucault for their hypostatisation of theory into an Eliatic System.

He regarded them as the apologists of technocracy, and coined the
term ‘cybernanthrope’ to describe the new systems-oriented technocracy, which he saw emerging in France under their aegis. But
he reserved his most venomous strictures, not surprisingly, for the
theoretical anti-humanists of Althusser’s school. Considering
Althusser as a renovator of Stalinist dogmatism, he accused him,
among other things, of divorcing theory from practice, of constructing a new structuralist ideology, and of recycling the old
empirio-criticism that Lenin had so thoroughly demolished sixty
years earlier. Althusser’s static and convoluted system seemed to

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

him to demobilise and disarm the creativity of the masses while
elevating a small intellectual elite to dangerous and unwarranted

The events of May 1968 in France and the upheavals throughout Europe and North America seemed to Lefebvre to vindicate
all that he had been arguing. The Stalinists and structuralists
seemed to him unable to understand, sympathize with, or even
communicate with the insurgent students, whereas Lefebvre saw
the students as the victims of social and intellectual alienation,
and as the agents of his long term programme of social liberation
leading to the creation of the Total Man. As a professor at
Nanterre, where the student movement was sparked off, he had a
grandstand view of the early days of the May events: Daniel
Cohn-Bendit was one of his students. His study ofthe causes and
origins of the events (translated in English as The Explosion)
remains one of the most influential. Both the innovative political
methods and slogans such as ‘imagination has taken power’

echoed Lefebvre’s own concerns. They also echoed the imaginative anarchism of the situationists, grouped round Guy Debord
and Raoul Vaneigem, who had long appealed to Lefebvre. His
work was one of their theoretical sources, though his relations
with them were often turbulent.

In many respects, the 1970s were the Golden Age of French
Marxism. Lefebvre’ s many works reached a much wider audience
during this period, and began to be translated into English as well
as other languages (especially in Eastern Europe). He and those
with whom he had worked during the late fifties and sixties
(Morin, Chatelet, Axelos, Goldmann, Castoriadis, Fougeyrollas
and others) became the senior figures of the non-communist
Marxist revival. Reprints of Lefebvre’s shorter accounts were
snapped up, though his own energies were turned principally
towards a series of innovative studies in urban sociology, in which
he argued that the organisation of the urban time and space to fit
the lived experience of its citizens and residents could become the
focus for a renewal of direct democratic relationships in modern

To the surprise and dismay of many of his associates, Lefebvre
moved back into a closer relationship with the PCF after 1978. In
part he was attracted by its greater independence from the Moscow line, in part by its espousal of decentralising policies oflocal
self-government, and in part by the more dialectical and humanist
approach of its leading theorists, especially Lucien Seve. The
rather more unbuttoned style of its publications gave him the
freedom to develop unorthodox views, which were no longer
regarded as threatening, and to deploy the humour and verve
which was always a characteristic of his writing. His rapprochement with communism was probably also a reaction against the
declining influence of Marxism and the tendency of many former
Left-wing intellectuals to drift into political agnosticism.

An assertive and energetic Marxist to the very end of his long
life, Henri Lefebvre continued to believe that an undogmatic
reading of Marx and Engels provided the best framework for
understanding the nature and development of society, and that an
ambitious revolutionary project offered the best chance of assisting positive human development through the reverses and uncertainties of history.

Michael Kelly
Two of Lefebvre’s most important works have recently been
translated into English: Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday
Life, Volume 1 (1947; 2nd ed. 1958), translated by John
Moore, Verso, London, 1991, £29.95 hb; Henri Lefebvre, The
Production of Space (1974), translated by Donald NicholsonSmith, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1991, £14.95 pb.


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