A sociologist born at the turn of the twentieth century, Henri Lefebvre is a figure whose writings shed light on questions pertaining to rural life versus urban life, theories of the state, modernity, and the role of social space and markets in cities. Beyond sociology, he is considered an important figure in both urban studies and neo-Marxist critical theory. Lefebvre’s contribution to urban studies and its relationship with critical theory merits attention despite the initial negative connotation that critical theory or any field ending with the word “studies” might convey. His writings raise reasonable concerns, I believe, and realistic observations about modern life that perplexes many a conservative and Marxist thinker today for the ways in which urban life is affecting the notion of the city and of society. If the reader will indulge my bold claim regarding the similarity between conservative and Marxist critiques of the city, this essay will point out some of these common elements before demonstrating where they diverge philosophically.
I. Intellectual Origins
World War I and the Russian revolution marked a significant shift for Lefebvre; one that turned him into a more political thinker. Born in France, he was influenced by radical, communist, avant-garde philosophers, and was well-versed in the writings of Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Hegel. Lefebvre pointed out how their “dialectical thinking” primarily concerns time. His unique contribution to his reading of these popular thinkers was reinterpreting their philosophical and political writings within the framework of space instead. Spatial relation would replace time as a better means through which to interpret modern capitalism.
Lefebvre’s famous book Le Droit à la Ville (1968) argued for a human “right to the city” where local authorities reclaim the city as a co-created space that is detached from the growing effects that commodification and capitalism have had over social interaction. It also aimed to rectify, through urban planning, the spatial inequalities in cities. Lefebvre’s following book, The Urban Revolution (1970) marked a new chapter in critical theory when it placed “the urban” at the center of political criticism. This essay will discuss the main points of The Urban Revolution.
The Urban Revolution begins with the hypothesis that society has become completely urbanized. At the time when Lefebvre was writing his work, urbanism was the object of criticism from both the left and the right. “The critique from the right,” he wrote, “is focused on the past and is frequently humanist” and “subsumes and justifies a liberal ideology of ‘free enterprise,’ directly or indirectly.” Lefebvre viewed the right-wing critique of urbanism of his time as one that prioritized the growth of the market in the name of economic liberty.
“The critique from the left,” on the other hand, was “frequently overlooked” and attempted “to open a path to the possible, to explore and delineate a landscape that is not merely part of the ‘real.’ ” Lefebvre interpreted the left-wing criticism of urbanism as a form of helpful criticism aimed towards improving an otherwise noble idea. Lefebvre also described the left’s critique as a “utopian” critique because it stepped back “from the real without, however, losing sight of it.” An interesting element about Lefebvre’s writings is how he treats the liberal understanding of modernity and its corollary urbanization, for he believed that the liberal’s understanding of the flaw of urbanization was merely not yet being perfect enough. Lefebvre considered the world of our making and the world of our envisioning two forms of realities, in fact, and he wrote about comparing “the real and the possible,” as though the possible “is also reality.”
From this initial observation it is possible to deduce that Lefebvre’s qualm with the right-wing critique of urbanization was its focus and prioritization of the market, while his qualm with the left-wing critique was more philosophical. This point becomes clearer as the book progresses. The introduction to The Urban Revolution reads, “only when we pause to reflect on the radical closure of space represented by contemporary financial capitalists’ visions of globalization, or left-wing parodies of the same, does the genius of Lefebvre’s spatial insistence become clear.” Lefebvre, however, hardly saw any use in viewing the modern world as black and white between right and left.
Lefebvre was a member of the Communist party, but had an increasingly complicated relationship with them. After Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 speech, “On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences,” revealed the truth of Stalin’s authoritarian regime and all the violence it inflicted, Lefebvre became disenchanted with the party. After trying to form an alternate party in France, he was expelled from the Communist party in 1958. Through this context, The Urban Revolution reveals itself as a response against the form of Communism that treats everything in this dichotomy between capitalism and socialism, for things are much more interconnected and complicated than that.
II. Urban Theories and the “Critique of Everyday Life”
After his excommunication from the Communist party, Lefebvre dedicated himself to forming his own theories, without ever fully disavowing his Marxist sympathies. He pioneered what is known in sociology as the “critique of everyday life,” and the justification for it is based on a combination of social changes and observations on modernity. Exploring these two elements is a worthy endeavor for the sceptic of sociology (particularly the French kind of sociology) as it provides us with the analytic background to understand how a critical theorist and neo-Marxist interpreted the course of urban development.
For Lefebvre, the critique of everyday life was not “merely a detail of sociology,” since it had “no clearly circumscribed domain.” As one would expect from a Marxist thinker, the critique of everyday life incorporates economic criticism, but he also incorporated various other fields into his theory since he was intellectually opposed to the form of disciplinary specialization that prevented fields from talking to each other and interpreting the lived world as the average person perceives it: as a whole unit, not subdivided by field-specific categories.
The critique of everyday life argues that our contemporary experiences in the world constitute an “everydayness” that began with the industrial era. This everydayness is “a social environment of sophisticated exploitation and carefully controlled passivity” that arises not from the characteristic of an urban setting alone, but from the implications of this urban setting, which segregates “moments of life and activities.” The urban setting was increasingly dividing the spaces in cities where people can live and the places that are solely functional. Capitalism downgraded the city, more specifically city life, into a commodity that only certain people could enjoy.
The repetitive, bureaucratic, and exploitative function of everyday life, Lefebvre posited, is not an accident of industrial and economic development. It was necessary, therefore, to find a new critical approach that would consider “objects and subjects, sectors and domains” and demonstrate how people live in an attempt to reveal how “the critique of everyday life builds an indictment of the strategies” that lead to segregated activities within the city.
This interpretation and criticism of urban life demonstrates Lefebvre’s Marxist influences, and we might easily find the flaw in Lefebvre’s own thinking for misrepresenting the flaws of everyday experience as the sinister plan crafted by companies, rather than as an evolved phenomenon with growing problems for which it is complicated to find a direct culprit. His theory presumes someone is to blame for the current order and outlook of our society. In a sense, the value of his theory is that Lefebvre is trying to inculcate a hyper awareness of one’s surroundings, one’s life, and one’s own self that allows individuals to view their created world critically. He considered the critique of everyday life as something ongoing, “sometimes spontaneously self-critical, sometimes conceptually formulated” that places thought and analysis (theoretically) in the hands of the individual citizen, not of any central planner or politician or bureaucrat.
III. Lefebvre’s Historiography of the City
An “urban revolution” signaled a historical shift from the agrarian to the industrial, but it also concerned the city as the transition from the political city to the industrial city—from the polis to a functioning system of economic activities. Lefebvre narrates that the political city was “populated primarily by priests, warriors, princes, nobles, and military leaders” and that it was “inconceivable without writing: documents, laws, inventories, tax collection” because it was governed by order and decrees. True, the political city contained a working class as they always have, but Lefebvre argued that in this setting peasants and communities retained “effective possession through the payment of tribute.” This is something that changed with the evolution of the political city.
Lefebvre drew upon the example of Athens, a political city, and its coexistence with Piraeus, a commercial city, to demonstrate that, historically, there had always been a distinction between the political city and the commercial city. He wrote,
“When Christ chased the merchants from the temple, the ban was similar, had the same meaning. In China and Japan, merchants were for years an urban underclass, relegated to a “special” (heterotopic) part of the city. In truth, it is only in the European West, at the end of the Middle Ages, that merchandise, the market, and merchants were able to successfully penetrate the city.”
The way that Lefebvre recounts the events of history is demonstrative of his overt Marxist influences, but his critical historiography begins after mercantilism became integrated with city life. Once merchants permanently entered the city, a class struggle began that was a “prodigiously fecund struggle in the West that helped create not only a history but history itself, the marketplace became centralized.” As this change took place, the marketplace “replaced and supplanted,” in Lefebvre’s words, the traditional place of assembly that was the agora or the forum. Lefebvre’s interpretation of this change, moreover, is a spatial observation: He criticizes the physical space that the market came to occupy in town squares. The mere presence of a new market space in the center of cities was significant to the minds of citizens, for “architecture follows and translates the new conception of the city” once markets took a place next to a main square’s church and town hall—a town hall that was grew increasingly occupied by a merchant oligarchy, he added.
IV. The Three Illusions of History
The historian of economics and economic development often equates the rise of markets with the rise of wealth and the increment of liberty. Lefebvre called it a “conquered liberty,” a “grandiose but hopeless struggle.” The interpretation of the rise of the market is where his observations might differ. Still, his concern for the problems with modern city life contain elements of truth to them. The political city changed in such a way that it not only altered physical space, but it also affected the conceptual understanding of what a city is meant for. The political city came from what Lefebvre called a philosophical illusion that led the architects of the political city—philosophers—to incorrectly believe that their system was the only possible option for city organization. The flaw of philosophers, Lefebvre adds, is that they believe their ideas to be the only correct ones, hence the “illusion.” But “there is always more in the world than any philosophical system,” he lamented.
Although he blamed the fall of the political city on the intellectual naivety (or intellectual arrogance) of the philosopher, Lefebvre was not a critic of philosophy; in fact, he admired it. He wrote, “for years [philosophy] rivaled art, possessing something of the incomparable character of an oeuvre: something unique, infinitely precious, irreplaceable.” But Lefebvre was, however, a realist who recognized that philosophy’s place in public life is unstable at best. He asked, “isn’t it an illusion, then, to go on indefinitely building systems that are forever disappointing, always improved?” Implementing philosophy in practical, political matters of daily life brought philosophy down from its place alongside art. For this reason, Lefebvre believed that “from the moment the idea of the indefinite perfectibility of systemization comes into conflict with the idea of the immanent perfection of the system as such, philosophical illusion enters consciousness.” An interesting point in Lefebvre’s observation is how he considered the idea of perfectibility in philosophy as something incompatible with the idea of its “immanent” perfection. Of course, as Christians we know that nothing of our world, especially philosophy, possesses immanent perfection.
Lefebvre’s astute criticism of the city demonstrates the intellectual standstill at which the Marxist—that is, atheist—thinker arrives: Man is the greatest; man is not good enough. Man can accomplish anything; He can ruin everything. The failure, or disenchantment, of philosophy brought about the next intellectual mistake that Lefebvre called “the state illusion.” Here, Lefebvre’s description of the state illusion might rival the writings of the strongest critics of centralization. He wrote, “the state is capable of managing the affairs of tens of millions of subjects. It would like to direct our consciousness as if it were a kind of high-level administrator. Providential, a god personified, the state would become the center of things and conscious beings on earth.” Lefebvre believed that the idea of the state was inherently geared towards control, though only “acknowledged in secret.” This formulation does not imply that politics succeeded philosophy chronologically, for the two have always coexisted, but that politics became more influential.
Initially, such a view of the state as an all-controlling organization was not likely to succeed, but it turned out that the state managed to usurp, as it were, the place held by philosophy in how it governed the lives of men. The newest illusion in Lefebvre’s chronology was the urban one. Lefebvre compared it to classical philosophy in the way that it claimed to be a system: “It wants to be the modern philosophy of the city, justified by (liberal) humanism while justifying a (technocratic) utopia.” Thus, Lefebvre’s critique of the urban revolution comes full circle. Its flaw is that it is a false philosophy justified by humanist and liberal principles of freedom that acts counterproductive to these ideas through its elevation of the market, which represses the lives of its own citizens through a technocratic and bureaucratic reality that sets aside people’s lives.
What might a conservative gain from reading Lefebvre’s urban theories? For one, they demonstrate the frustration with the ongoing erosion of the citizen’s life in the city. They raise, moreover, important questions regarding the growth of urbanization; one cannot help but nod at his prediction that urbanization is becoming more and more pervasive in our societies. While the easy and common targets of this reality have always been companies, technocrats, and bureaucrats according to Marxist thinkers, it is helpful for free-market advocates to recognize the very real effects that cities are having on citizens. How to fix this? The popularity of “new urbanism,” championed by thinkers like Sir Roger Scruton contains promising ideas that aim to balance a livable city for inhabitants with a functional city for economic function, but it does reconceptualize the role of the market in the city. If not the answer, at least a good place from the “other” side to begin thinking about these problems and their implications can be found in Lefebvre’s writings. He is one of the more objective thinkers in critical theory; his Marxism seldom immune from its fair share of critical analysis.
Lefebvre, Henri, The Urban Revolution, (Minneapolis: 2003).
Notes Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, (Minneapolis: 2003), p. viii.  Ibid., p. ix.  Ibid., p. vii.  Ibid., p. 6.  Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, p. 6.  Ibid., p. 6-7.  Ibid., p. 139-40.  Ibid., p. viii.  Ibid., p. xi.  Ibid.  Ibid., p. 139.  Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, p. 139.  Ibid.  Ibid., pp. 139-40.  Ibid., p. 140.  Ibid., 8-9.  Ibid.  Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, p. 9.  Ibid., p. 10.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid., p. 153.  Ibid.  Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, p. 153.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on February 21, 2020.