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Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991)  


Henri Lefebvre was born in Hagetmau, Landes, France. He studied philosophy at the University of Paris at the Sorbonne, graduating in 1920. By 1924 he was working with Paul Nizan, Norbert Guterman and others in the Philosophies group seeking a "philosophical revolution"  This brought them into contact with the Surrealists and other groups, before they moved towards the French Communist Party (PCF). Lefebvre joined the PCF in 1928 and later published attacks on its opponents.

From 1930 - 1940 Lefebvre was a professor of philosophy; in 1940 he joined the French resistance. From 1944 - 1949 he was the director of Radiodiffusion Française, a French radio broadcaster in Toulouse.

His criticism of everyday life - (The Critique of Everyday Life (1947) exerted a profound influence on French literati and philosophers. It was among the major motives behind the founding of COBRA and, eventually, of the Situationist International. In 1958 Lefebvre was expelled from the PCF and grew close to the Situationists. During the following years he was involved in the editorial group of Arguments, a New Left magazine whose

"chief merit lay in having enabled the French public to become familiar with the experiments in revisionism carried out in Central Europe in the twenties and thirties" 

In 1961 he became professor of sociology at the University of Strasbourg, before joining the faculty at the new university at Nanterre in 1965. He wrote in French, English, and German.


Lefebvre has dedicated a great deal of his philosophical writings to understanding the importance of (the production of) space in what he called the reproduction of social relations of production (idea which is the central argument in the book The Survival of Capitalism, written as a sort of prelude to The Production of Space). These two works have deeply influenced current urban theory, mainly within human geography. Lefebvre is widely recognized as a Marxist thinker who was responsible for widening considerably the scope of Marxist theory, embracing everyday life and the contemporary meanings and implications of the ever expanding reach of the urban in the western world throughout the 20th century. The generalization of industry, and its relation to cities (which is treated in La pensée marxiste et la ville), The Right to the City and The Urban Revolution were all themes of Lefebvre's writings in the late 1960s, which was concerned, amongst other aspects, with the deep transformation of "the city" into "the urban" which culminated in its omni-presence (the "complete urbanization of society").

In his book The Urban Question, Manuel Castells heavily criticizes Lefebvre's theoretical arguments contained in the books published in the 1960s about the contemporary city from a Marxist standpoint. Castells' criticisms of Lefebvre's subjective approach to Marxism echoed the structuralist school of Louis Althusser , of which Lefebvre was an early critic. Many responses to Castells are provided in The Survival of Capitalism. In it, he aske the fundamental question that vexed Marxist theorists and which became the central problematic of the Frankfurt theorists and which the Structuuralists like Althusser were themselves unable to resolve:

“Countless revolutionaries have vainly believed, and still believe, that a spark would be enough to engulf the world. It is not impossible, of course, that a local conflict can turn into a general one - in fact the fear of this is general enough. But in order to change something, is it not first of all necessary to change everything, ie. to change the whole first?  Of course it is. But how can everything be changed without a start being made somewhere, without gradually changing each thing, each “being”, each “man”

The longer and denser The Production of Space proposes a new and startling resolution to the dilemma, and was much influenced by the Situationists with whom Lefebvre had a close relationship between 1957-62. What neither Althusser not Gramsci himself had recognised, however, was a particular function of the State which Engels himself had earlier indicated, and which plays an equally important part in the process of hegemony - the creation of territories, as Engels put it, or as Lefebvre would say, "the creation of space":

“... what has happened is that capitalism has found itself able to attenuate (if not resolve) its internal contradictions for a century, and consequently, in the hundred years since the writing of Capital, it has succeeded in achieving ”growth”. We cannot calculate at what price, but we do know the means: by occupying space, by creating a space.”  (emphasis added)

Paradoxically, this other most significant reason for the non-collapse of capitalism had been inexplicably overlooked by the Frankfurt theorists and other analysts like Althusser and Gramsci. What they overlooked was precisely the ability of the capitalist economies to continuingly resolve their internal economic dilemmas and contradictions through a seemingly endless expansion and growth created by the spatial re-territorialisation of society. Why theorists should have overlooked the power of spatiality is not clear although Lefebvre has advanced the convincing theory that the oversight was the result of a preoccupation of marxist theoreticians with time, to the exclusion of space as a meaningful theoretical category.  Lefebvre held that because Marx had developed his theory of surplus value on the basis of the time sold by the worker to the employer at a particular hourly rate (this rate/time component not being remunerative enough to allow the worker to buy the goods s/he had produced for the same amount as that which it had cost to produce) - time had become the crucial factor in all of the marxist theories regarding the collapse of the capitalist economy. What this construct lacked was any awareness that by creating and recreating increasingly differentiated and efficient spatial configurations, capitalism was able to continually expand its sphere of influence and defer the clash of internal contradictions which lay at the root of its ideology.  

The realisation that the creation of space played and equally if not greater part in the process of social reproduction has been of major significance in a wide range of fields beyond philosophy - Geography, Urban Studies, Planning, Architecture etc. and has influenced the work not only of Castells, but also the work of authors such as David Harvey and Edward Soja at UCLA. The concept took its bearings from some of the key concepts used by the Situationists.

In 1962 there was an acrimonious falling out between Lefebvre and the Situationists. and much of his subsequent work can be seen in part as a response to the disagreement with them. He followed the Survival of Capitalism with a fuller analysis of the role of space-creation in the reproduction of the social relations of production . In The Production of Space, Lefebvre asks, "What exactly is the mode of social relationships?" His conclusion - 

"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 spatialization.

His theory provides a bridge from Marxist thought to environmental politics. Lefebvre advocated alternative and revolutionary restructurations of institutionalized 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 the prevailing norms of enforced capitalist spatialization ("abstract space"). As a dialectician, Lefebvre understood that space and time were two categories that couldn't be separated. Before his death, he was working on a "rhythmanalysis" to link different rhythms (cyclical, linear, etc.) with different modes of spatiality.  (See:

In The Production of Space, Lefebvre contends that there are different levels of space, from very abstract, crude, natural space ('absolute space') to more complex spatialities whose significance is socially produced ('social space'). Lefebvre's argument in The Production of Space is that space is a social product, or a complex social construction (based on values, and the social production of meanings) which affects spatial practices and perceptions. As a Marxist philosopher (but highly critical of the economicist structuralism that dominated the academic discourse in his period), Lefebvre argues that this social production of urban space is fundamental to the reproduction of society, hence of capitalism itself. Therefore, the notion of Hegemony as proposed by Gramsci is used as a reference to show how the social production of space is commanded by a hegemonic class as a tool to reproduce its dominance.

"Social space is a social product - the space produced in a certain manner serves as a tool of thought and action. It is not only a means of production but also a means of control, and hence of domination/power.

Lefebvre argued that every society - and therefore every mode of production - produces a certain space, its own space. The city of the ancient world cannot be understood as a simple agglomeration of people and things in space - it had its own spatial practice, making its own space (which was suitable for itself - Lefebvre argues that the intellectual climate of the city in the ancient world was very much related to the social production of its spatiality). Then if every society produces its own space, any "social existence" aspiring to be or declaring itself to be real, but not producing its own space, would be a strange entity, a very peculiar abstraction incapable of escaping the ideological or even cultural spheres. Based on this argument, Lefebvre criticized Soviet urban planners, on the basis that they failed to produce a socialist space, having just reproduced the modernist model of urban design (interventions on physical space, which were insufficient to grasp social space) and applied it onto that context:

"Change life! Change Society! These ideas lose completely their meaning without producing an appropriate space. A lesson to be learned from soviet constructivists from the 1920s and 30s, and of their failure, is that new social relations demand a new space, and vice-versa."

Henri Lefebvre was an original andd important critical threorist. He has rightly been called on of France's greatest intellectuals in the 20th Century, and has single-handedly transformed marxist theorising about social reproduction. He died at the age of 90 in 1991. His obituary in Radical Philosophy magazine read:

"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. (Wikipedia )

To download a more complete and detailed analysis of Lefebvre's theories in a PDF Hegemony and Space click here

To download three illustrated PDFs on The Social Conastruction of Space click here

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