Sociology Index

Henri Lefebvre

Henri Lefebvre was a French Marxist philosopher and sociologist, best known for pioneering the critique of everyday life, for introducing the concepts of the right to the city, and the production of social space. Henri Lefebvre is known for his work on dialectics, alienation, criticism of Stalinism, existentialism, and structuralism. In his prolific career, Henri Lefebvre wrote more than sixty books and three hundred articles. Henri Lefebvre founded and took part in the founding of several intellectual and academic journals such as Philosophies, La Revue Marxiste, Arguments, Socialisme ou Barbarie, and Espaces et Sociétés. Lefebvre was born in Hagetmau, Landes, France. He studied philosophy at the University of Paris or the Sorbonne, graduating in 1920.

Henri Lefebvre worked with Paul Nizan, Norbert Guterman, Georges Friedmann, Georges Politzer, and Pierre Morhange in the Philosophies group seeking a "philosophical revolution". This brought them into contact with the Surrealists, Dadaists, and other groups, before they moved towards the French Communist Party (PCF).

Lefebvre joined the PCF in 1928 and became one of the most prominent French Marxist intellectuals during the second quarter of the 20th century, before joining the French resistance. From 1944 to 1949, he was the director of Radiodiffusion Française, a French radio broadcaster in Toulouse. Among his works was a highly influential, anti-Stalinist text on dialectics called Dialectical Materialism (1940).

Henri Lefebvre published his first volume of The Critique of Everyday Life. His early work on method was applauded and borrowed centrally by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960).

During Henri Lefebvre's thirty-year stint with the PCF, he was chosen to publish critical attacks on opposed theorists, especially existentialists like Sartre and Lefebvre's former colleague Nizan, only to intentionally get himself expelled from the party for his own heterodox theoretical and political opinions in the late 1950s. Henri Lefebvre then went from serving as a primary intellectual for the PCF to becoming one of France's most important critics of the PCF's politics and intellectual thought.

In 1961, Henri Lefebvre became professor of sociology at the University of Strasbourg, before joining the faculty at the new university at Nanterre in 1965. He was one of the most respected professors, and he had influenced and analysed the May 1968 student revolt. Henri Lefebvre introduced the concept of the right to the city in his 1968 book Le Droit à la ville, and the publication of the book predates the May 1968 revolts which took place in many French cities. Following the publication of this book, Lefebvre wrote several influential works on cities, urbanism, and space, including The Production of Space (1974), which became one of the most influential and heavily cited works of urban theory.

By the 1970s, Henri Lefebvre had also published some of the first critical statements on the work of post-structuralists, especially Michel Foucault. During the following years he was involved in the editorial group of Arguments, a New Left magazine which largely served to enable the French public to familiarize themselves with Central European revisionism.

When Henri Lefebvre died in 1991. In his obituary, Radical Philosophy magazine honored his long and complex career and influence: 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.

One of Henri Lefebvre's most important contributions to social thought is the idea of the "critique of everyday life", which he pioneered in the 1930s. Lefebvre defined everyday life dialectically as the intersection of "illusion and truth, power and helplessness; the intersection of the sector man controls and the sector he does not control", and is where the perpetually transformative conflict occurs between diverse, specific rhythms: the body's polyrhythmic bundles of natural rhythms, physiological (natural) rhythms, and social rhythms (Lefebvre and Régulier, 1985: 73). The everyday was, in short, the space in which all life occurred, and between which all fragmented activities took place. It was the residual.

Henri Lefebvre argued that everyday life was an underdeveloped sector compared to technology and production, and moreover that in the mid 20th century, capitalism changed such that everyday life was to be colonized—turned into a zone of sheer consumption. In this zone of everydayness or boredom shared by everyone in society regardless of class or specialty, autocritique of everyday realities of boredom vs. societal promises of free time and leisure, could lead to people understanding and then revolutionizing their everyday lives.

This was essential to Lefebvre because everyday life was where he saw capitalism surviving and reproducing itself. Without revolutionizing everyday life, capitalism would continue to diminish the quality of everyday life, and inhibit real self-expression. The critique of everyday life was crucial because it was for him only through the development of the conditions of human life—rather than abstract control of productive forces—that humans could reach a concrete utopian existence.

Henri Lefebvre's work on everyday life was heavily influential in French theory, particularly for the Situationists, as well as in politics. The third volume has also recently influenced scholars writing about digital technology and information in the present day, since it has a section dealing with this topic at length, including analysis of the Nora-Minc Report [fr] (1977); key aspects of information theory; and other general discussion of the "colonisation" of everyday life through information communication technologies as "devices" or "services".

Lefebvre dedicated a great deal of his philosophical writings to understanding the importance of space in what he called the reproduction of social relations of production. This idea is the central argument in the book The Survival of Capitalism, written as a sort of prelude to La Production de l'espace (1974) (The Production of Space). These works have deeply influenced current urban theory, mainly within human geography, as seen in the current work of authors such as David Harvey, Dolores Hayden, and Edward Soja, and in the contemporary discussions around the notion of spatial justice.

Lefebvre is widely recognized as a Marxist thinker who was responsible for widening considerably the scope of Marxist theory. 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, among other aspects, with the deep transformation of "the city" into "the urban" which culminated in its omnipresence or the complete urbanization of society.

Lefebvre contends that there are different modes of production of space (spatialization) from natural space ('absolute space') to more complex spaces and flows whose meaning is produced in a social way (social space). Lefebvre analyzes each historical mode as a three-part dialectic between everyday practices and perceptions (le perçu), representations or theories of space (le conçu) and the spatial imaginary of the time (le vécu).

Lefebvre's argument in The Production of Space is that space is a social product, or a complex social construction which affects spatial practices and perceptions. This argument implies the shift of the research perspective from space to processes of its production; the embrace of the multiplicity of spaces that are socially produced and made productive in social practices; and the focus on the contradictory, conflictual, and, ultimately, political character of the processes of production of space. As a Marxist theorist Henri Lefebvre argues that this social production of urban space is fundamental to the reproduction of society, hence of capitalism itself. The social production of space is commanded by a hegemonic class as a tool to reproduce its dominance.

Henri Lefebvre argued that every society 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. 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 and applied it onto that context:

In his book The Urban Question, Manuel Castells criticizes Henri Lefebvre's Marxist humanism and approach to the city influenced by Hegel and Nietzsche. Castells' political criticisms of Lefebvre's approach to Marxism echoed the structuralist Scientific Marxism school of Louis Althusser of which Henri Lefebvre was an immediate critic.