Henri Lefebvre

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Henri Lefebvre in 1971

Henri Lefebvre (16 June 190129 June 1991) 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, and for his work on dialectics, alienation, and criticism of Stalinism, existentialism, and structuralism.


  • Socialism, when it attempts to predict or imagine the future (which Marx refused to do, since he conceived of a path, not a model), provides us merely with an improved form of labor (salaries and material conditions on the job).
    • Henri Lefebvre (1970/2003) The Urban Revolution p. 110.
    • Variant:
      • Marx... conceived of a path, not a model.
      • As cited in: "Anti-Capitalist Meet Up: Henri Lefebvre looks out into space" at dailykos.com, 2012.04.29
  • Just as economic pressure from the base … is able to modify the production of surplus value, so pressure grounded in spatial practice is alone capable of modifying the apportionment of that surplus value — i.e. the distribution of the portion of social surplus production allotted to society's collective 'interests', to so-called social services. Such grass-roots pressure, if it is to be effective in this regard, cannot be confined to attacking the state qua guardian of the 'general interest'. For this state, born of the hegemony of a class, has as one of its functions — and a more and more significant function — the organization of space, the regularization of its flows, the control of its networks. It devotes to these purposes a considerable part of global surplus value, of the surplus production assigned to the running of society.
    • Henri Lefebvre (1974) The Production of Space. Translated to English in 1991 by Donald Nicholson-Smith; As cited in: "Henri Lefebvre on Governance and Space" on thepolisblog.org 2012.10
  • Pressure from below must therefore also confront the state in its role as organiser of space, as the power that controls urbanization, the construction of buildings and spatial planning in general. The state defends class interests while simultaneously setting itself above society as a whole, and its ability to intervene in space can and must be turned back against it, by grass-roots opposition, in the form of counter-plans and counter-projects designed to thwart strategies, plans and programmes imposed from above.
    • Henri Lefebvre (1974) The Production of Space. Translated to English in 1991 by Donald Nicholson-Smith; cited in: "Henri Lefebvre on Governance and Space" on thepolisblog.org 2012.10
  • 'Change life! 'Change society!' These precepts mean nothing without the production of an appropriate space. … new social relationships call for a new space, and vice versa.
    • Henri Lefebvre (1991; original French edition, 1974), as quoted in Fainstein The City Builders (2001), p. 272
  • The most remarkable aspect of the transition we are living through is not so much the passage from want to affluence as the passage from labour to leisure
    • Henri Lefèbvre (2000) Everyday Life in the Modern World Second Revised Edition. p. 52

From Critique of Everyday Life: Volume 1 (1947/1991)

  • It is through knowledge that the proletarian liberates himself and begins actively superseding his condition. Moreover in this effort to attain knowledge and awareness, he is forced to assimilate complex theories (economic, social, political...), i.e. to integrate the loftiest findings of science and culture into his own consciousness.
    On the other hand the petty bourgeois and bourgeois, as such, are barred access to the human.
    For them to become humanized, they must break with themselves, reject themselves, an endeavor which on an individual level is frequently real and pathetic … We should understand men in a human way, even if they are incomplete; conditions are not confined within precise, geometrically defined boundaries, but are the result of a multitude of obstinate and ever-repeated (everyday) causes. Attempts to escape from the bourgeois condition are not particularly rare; on the other hand, the failure of such attempts are virtually inevitable, precisely because it is not so much a question of suppression but of a complete break. (Among intellectuals, this notion of super session is frequently false and harmful; when they supersede themselves as petty-bourgeois or bourgeois intellectuals, they are often merely continuing in the same direction and following their own inclinations in the belief that they are 'superseding themselves'. So far from gaining a new consciousness, they are merely making the old one worse. There is nothing more unbearable than the intellectual who believes himself to be free and human, while in every action, gesture, word and thought he shows that he has never stepped beyond bourgeois consciousness.)
  • The 'meaning' of life is not to be found in anything other than that life itself. It is within it, and there is nothing beyond that. 'Meaning' cannot spill over from being; it is the direction, the movement of being, and nothing more. The 'meaning' of a proletarian's life is to be found in that life itself: in its despair, or conversely in its movement towards freedom, if the proletarian participates in the life of the proletariat, and if that life involves continuous, day-to-day action (trade-union, political...).
"Castles, palaces, cathedrals, fortresses, all speak in their various ways of the greatness and the strength of the people who built them and against whom they were built." Palais de Justice of Paris, France
  • The method of Marx and Engels consists precisely in a search for the link which exists between what men think, desire, say and believe for themselves and what they are, what they do. This link always exists. It can be explored in two directions. On the one hand, the historian or the man of action can proceed from ideas to men, from consciousness to being - i.e. towards practical, everyday reality - bringing the two into confrontation and thereby achieving archieving criticism of ideas by action and realities. That is the direction which Marx and Engels nearly always followed in everything they wrote; and it is the direction which critical and constructive method must follow initially if it is to take a demonstrable shape and achieve results.
    But it is equally possible to follow this link in another direction, taking real life as the point of departure in an investigation of how the ideas which express it and the forms of consciousness which reflect it emerge. The link, or rather the network of links between the two poles will prove to be complex. It must be unravelled, the thread must be carefully followed. In this way we can arrive at a criticism of life by ideas which in a sense extends and completes the first procedure.
  • Appearance and reality [...] are not separated like oil and water in a vessel, but rather amalgamated like water and wine. To separate them, we must analyse them in the most 'classic' sense of the word: the elements of the mixture must be isolated.
  • Only a vast inventory of the elements of our culture - in other words of our consciousness of life - will enable us to see clearly.
  • [U]p until now 'progress' has affected existing social realities only secondarily, modifying them as little as possible, according to the strict dictates of capitalist profitability. The important thing is that human beings are profitable, not that their lives be changed. As far as is possible, capitalism respects the pre-existing shape and contours of people's lives. Only grudgingly, so to speak, does it bring about any change. Criticism of capitalism as a contradictory 'mode of production' which is dying as a result of its contradictions is strengthened by criticism of capitalism as the distributor of the wealth and 'progress' it has produced.
    And so, constantly staring us in the face, mundane and therefore generally unnoticed - whereas in the future it will be seen as a characteristic and scandalous trait of our era, the era of the decadent bourgeoisie - is this fact: that life is lagging behind what is possible, that it is retarded. What incredible backwardness. This has up until now been constantly increasing; it parallels the growing disparity between the knowledge of the contemporary physicist and that of the 'average' man, or between that of the Marxist sociologist and that of the bourgeois politician.
    Once pointed out, the contrast becomes staggeringly obvious, blinding; it is to be found everywhere, whichever way we turn, and never ceases to amaze.
"Everything great and splendid is founded on power and wealth. They are the basis of beauty." Sistine Chapel showing the East Wall and a portion of North Wall
  • Everything great and splendid is founded on power and wealth. They are the basis of beauty. This is why the rebel and the anarchic protester who decries all of history and all the works of past centuries because he sees in them only the skills and the threat of domination is making a mistake. He sees alienated forms, but not the greatness within. The rebel can only see to the end of his own ‘private’ consciousness, which he levels against everything human, confusing the oppressors with the oppressed masses, who were nevertheless the basis and the meaning of history and past works. Castles, palaces, cathedrals, fortresses, all speak in their various ways of the greatness and the strength of the people who built them and against whom they were built. This real greatness shines through the fake grandeur of rulers and endows these buildings with a lasting ‘beauty’. The bourgeoisie is alone in having given its buildings a single, over-obvious meaning, impoverished, deprived of reality: that meaning is abstract wealth and brutal domination; that is why it has succeeded in producing perfect ugliness and perfect vulgarity. The man who denigrates the past, and who nearly always denigrates the present and the future as well, cannot understand this dialectic of art, this dual character of works and of history. He does not even sense it. Protesting against bourgeois stupidity and oppression, the anarchic individualist is enclosed in ‘private’ consciousness, itself a product of the bourgeois era, and no longer understands human power and the community upon which that power is founded. The historical forms of this community, from the village to the nation, escape him. He is, and only wants to be, a human atom (in the scientifically archaic sense of the word, where ‘atom’ meant the lowest isolatable reality). By following alienation to its very extremes he is merely playing into the hands of the bourgeoisie. Embryonic and unconscious, this kind of anarchism is very widespread. There is a kind of revolt, a kind of criticism of life, that implies and results in the acceptance of this life as the only one possible. As a direct consequence this attitude precludes any understanding of what is humanly possible.
  • To see things properly, it is not enough simply to look. People who look at life - purely as witnesses, spectators - are not rare; and one of the strangest lessons to be learnt from our literature is that professional spectators, judges by vocation and witnesses by predestination, contemplate life with less understanding and grasp of its rich content than anyone else. There really is no substitution for participation!
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