Lefebvre, Henri 1901-1991
Known as the “father of the dialectic,” Henri Lefebvre was a key figure in the dissemination of the theory and method of dialectical materialism outside of Communist countries in the twentieth century, thanks to his widely translated Le matérialisme dialectique (Dialectical Materialism, 1939) and other works that emphasized a philosophically rigorous approach to the work of Karl Marx (1818–1883), G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). One of the first serious French commentators on these scholars, Lefebvre pioneered their translation and popularization. He advocated the application of dialectical materialism as a methodology, even when it challenged Marxist orthodoxy. Lefebvre encouraged the elaboration of social critique by later generations, including the Situationniste Internationale group, 1960s student activists, 1970s Marxist critics of urban governance, and the 1980s critical postmodernists in the United States. Lefebvre was a witness to both world wars and to the modernization of everyday life in France, including the industrialization of the rural economy and the suburbanization of its cities.
In the early 1950s, Lefebvre was the measure of orthodoxy for pre-Stalinist French Marxism, until his humanism and interest in the alienated quality of everyday life led to expulsion from the Parti Communiste Français. These themes can be found in his series of works on the banality (quotidiennité ) of everyday life under capitalism, Critique de la view quotidienne (Critique of Everyday Life, 4 vols., 1958–1981), in which he examines such topics as the requirement to commute long distances and work long hours. Reacting against his youthful romanticism and Martin Heidegger’s (1889–1976) metaphysical critique of Alltäglichkeit (everydayness, banality), rather than seek an aesthetic or poetic solution to the problem of alienation, Lefebvre argued for concrete changes in collective practice. Contemporary social life is not just banal, it is the deliberate outcome of a bureaucratized, consumption-oriented society, suggesting that changes in its organization are required, not more refined individual sensibilities.
The commercialized and inauthentic ambient environment in cities, suburban developments, and housing design inspired his critiques of contemporary planning practice and the development of a critical theory of the production of these environments as social spaces. In collaboration with members of the Situationniste Internationale, whom he met in Strasbourg while establishing one of the first sociology departments in France, he championed the revolutionary potential of the ludic and the carnivalesque. This perspective informed the strategy of Lefebvre’s later students in May 1968 at the University of Nanterre when they initiated student unrest in Paris. The inconclusive outcome was seen at the time as a failure of Lefebvre’s Marxist humanism. However, interest in his pioneering appreciations of the spatial matrix and rhythms of urban life resumed in the 1990s.
Lefebvre was widely influential as a critic of structuralism, a founder of rural sociology, and an analyst of the role of the state in the creation of favorable conditions for capitalists and for the organization of production. He stressed that this took material and performative, rather than ideological forms. Capitalism is embodied, it is a built environment and landscape, and it is lived in the rhythms and divisions of our days.
SEE ALSO Capitalism; Cultural Landscape; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Humanism; Marx, Karl; Marxism; Materialism, Dialectical; Methodology; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Praxis; Protest; Resistance; Structuralism
Lefebvre, Henri.  1991. The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell.
Shields, Rob. 1999. Lefebvre: Love and Struggle—Spatial Dialectics. London: Routledge.