henri-lefebvre-interview

Henri Lefebvre and Marxism: A view from the Frankfurt School

Le­fe­b­vre and con­tem­por­ary
in­ter­pret­a­tions of Marx

Al­fred Schmidt
Frankfurt, 1968

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In re­cent years the lit­er­at­ure that has ap­peared about, for, and against Marx and Marx­ism has in­creased to the point where it can hardly be sur­veyed. Yet it would be false to con­clude that the de­bate over mat­ters of con­tent has been ad­vanced. To the ex­tent that this lit­er­at­ure does not speak the lan­guage of the Cold War and at­tempt to es­tab­lish a du­bi­ous “counter-ideo­logy,” it pro­duces (as polit­ic­al sci­ence or Krem­lino­logy) works full of in­form­a­tion con­cern­ing the state of So­viet Marx­ist doc­trines in terms of their de­pend­ence on cur­rent polit­ic­al trends. To the ex­tent that Marxi­an the­ory it­self still enters its field of vis­ion, it is dulled by the fact that people (gen­er­ally fol­low­ing Karl Löwith) clas­si­fy it in the his­tor­ic­al tra­di­tion of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Ni­et­z­sche, or else re­duce it to an ahis­tor­ic­al in­ter­pret­a­tion of the prob­lem­at­ic of ali­en­a­tion in the Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­ic­al Manuscripts.

On the oth­er hand, the group of au­thors hon­estly in­ter­ested in the fur­ther de­vel­op­ment of Marxi­an the­ory is ex­cep­tion­ally small. They are able to ab­stract from what still fre­quently passes for Marx­ism in the East­ern half of the world without deny­ing the ob­ject­ive sig­ni­fic­ance of the East-West con­flict for their thought. They have in­volved them­selves in­tens­ively with texts of Hegel and Marx, which by no means have fi­nally been dis­posed of, without fall­ing in­to the hair-split­ting on­to­logy — with its con­sec­rated body of quo­ta­tions — that is typ­ic­al for the post-Sta­lin­ist peri­od in So­viet philo­sophy. To this group be­longs Henri Le­fe­b­vre (who has re­cently be­come known in Ger­many through his acute ana­lys­is of Sta­lin­ism).1 His writ­ings are in­dis­pens­able to those who aim at an ad­equate (and there­fore crit­ic­al) un­der­stand­ing of Marx with­in the lim­its of the al­tern­at­ives that have been in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized in the polit­ic­al arena: either call­ing dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism a “wa­ter­tight world­view” (Robert Mu­sil) or dis­miss­ing it out of hand as a product of the dis­cred­ited nine­teenth cen­tury.

If a pub­lish­er has de­cided to bring out an edi­tion of Le ma­té­ria­lisme dia­lec­tique,2 a work that ap­peared over three dec­ades ago, it is be­cause it has scarcely lost its ac­tu­al­ity — aside from a few points that needed cor­rec­tion. The philo­soph­ic­al dis­cus­sion of Marx­ism that began dir­ectly after the First World War with Ernst Bloch’s Spir­it of Uto­pia and Georg Lukács’ His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, and was es­pe­cially furthered by Karl Korsch, Her­bert Mar­cuse, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Ad­orno, broke off with Hitler’s seizure of power. There­fore, works on Marx from that peri­od, as well as those writ­ten in west­ern Europe in the late thirties, are still of great im­port­ance to us: not least be­cause those works ap­proached prob­lems in a way far more polit­ic­al and closer to real­ity than was pos­sible for the new West Ger­man at­tempts at an in­ter­pret­a­tion of Marx after 1945, which re­mained more or less aca­dem­ic. These were all es­sen­tially centered on the “young Marx” in whom the au­thors (Thi­er, Po­pitz, Fromm) wanted to see an “ex­ist­en­tial thinker.”

Since Le­fe­b­vre’s book also seems at first glance to be­long to the ex­ist­ence-philo­soph­ic­al, mor­al­iz­ing, and ab­stract an­thro­po­lo­gic­al school of in­ter­pret­a­tion, it seems ne­ces­sary to make the read­er some­what more con­vers­ant with Le­fe­b­vre’s in­tel­lec­tu­al de­vel­op­ment.3 Only on that basis can the cent­ral concept of “ali­en­a­tion” in his Dia­lect­ic­al Ma­ter­i­al­ism be un­der­stood and dif­fer­en­ti­ated from in­ter­pret­a­tions us­ing this concept in a sense al­most ex­actly op­posed to the Marxi­an one.

First, some dates in pre-World War II French philo­sophy. About the year 1930, the philo­soph­ic­al as­pect of Marx­ism began to arouse in­terest in France. At the same time, a broad gen­er­al re­ceptiv­ity to­ward Hegel, in­ter­woven with at­ti­tudes to­ward Kierkegaard, was an­nounced by Jean Wahl’s book, Le mal­heur de la con­science dans la phi­lo­soph­ie de He­gel. Wahl is in­clined to re­duce the rich­ness of Hegel’s work to the stage of the “un­happy con­scious­ness.” With this em­phas­is on the ro­mantic mo­ment in Hegel, it be­comes al­most im­possible to sep­ar­ate Hegel and Kierkegaard. Sub­sequently, the ap­pro­pri­ation of the ideal­ist dia­lectic is par­alleled by an in­ter­pret­a­tion of Marx’s early writ­ings in the light of Heide­g­ger’s Be­ing and Time. This pro­cess led to the birth of the French vari­ety of ex­ist­en­tial on­to­logy: to ex­ist­en­tial­ism. It was com­pleted between 1933 and 1938, years in which Al­ex­an­dre Kojève gave his now fam­ous lec­tures on the Phe­nomen­o­logy of Spir­it4 at the Ecole des Hautes Et­udes be­fore stu­dents such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Mer­leau-Ponty, Ray­mond Aron, and R. P. Fes­sard. These lec­tures fol­low the same ques­tion­able lines as Wahl and see ac­cess to Hegel’s en­tire oeuvre in a single level of con­scious­ness. With Kojève, it is the much-com­men­ted-on chapter “De­pend­ence and In­de­pend­ence of Self-Con­scious­ness: Lord­ship and Bond­age.” Al­though he wants his in­ter­pret­a­tion of Hegel to be con­sidered “Marx­ist,” he does not fo­cus on Marx’s ma­ter­i­al­ist “in­ver­sion” of the dia­lectic. Rather, as Fetscher em­phas­izes, Kojève already sees in the phe­nomen­o­lo­gic­al dia­lectic it­self “all the ul­ti­mate con­sequences of the Marx­ist philo­sophy of his­tory.”5 Thus “mo­tifs of thought” that first arose from Marx’s cri­tique of Hegel are ascribed to Hegel. But even Marx’s po­s­i­tion is not done justice, since Kojève lags be­hind his claim that one should el­ev­ate one­self to real his­tory, that is, to the con­crete forms of hu­man re­la­tion­ships, which are de­term­ined dif­fer­ently at dif­fer­ent mo­ments in time. In­stead, he is sat­is­fied with the sterile defin­i­tion of a Heide­g­geri­an “his­tor­icity of ex­ist­ence” that is sup­posedly present in the Phe­nomen­o­logy of Mind as an “ex­ist­en­tial”6 and rad­ic­ally “fi­nite”7 an­thro­po­logy. Ac­cord­ing to Kojève, the an­thro­po­lo­gic­al char­ac­ter of Hegel­i­an thought be­comes un­der­stand­able only on the basis of Heide­g­ger’s em­phas­is on “on­to­lo­gic­al fi­nitude,” al­though the an­thro­po­logy of Be­ing and Time (which Kojève as­serts in op­pos­i­tion to Heide­g­ger’s in­ten­tion) adds noth­ing new to that de­veloped by Hegel.

The sup­posedly broad­er “an­thro­po­lo­gic­al-on­to­lo­gic­al basis”8 with which Kojève wants to dote dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism is more li­able to re­duce it to a doc­trine of in­vari­able struc­tures. Not the least of the ways that this would de­vel­op is in strictly polit­ic­al terms. In­so­far as Kojève breaks the struc­tur­al ele­ments of the Mas­ter-Slave dia­lectic away from its spe­cif­ic his­tor­ic­al back­ground (which must al­ways be thought of with it), he in­flates labor and the struggle for life and death in­to etern­al factors, à la so­cial Dar­win­ism. Stripped of every con­crete de­term­in­a­tion, man ap­pears as an es­sence “which is al­ways con­scious of his death, of­ten freely as­sumes it and some­times know­ingly and freely chooses it”; Hegel’s “an­thro­po­lo­gic­al philo­sophy” is viewed as “ul­ti­mately one… of death.”9 Ana­chron­ist­ic­ally, and thus in a way that fals­i­fies Hegel, Kojève equates the struggle for “re­cog­ni­tion” with a “fight for pure prestige.”10 Hu­man es­sence and know­ledge con­sti­tutes it­self with a de­cided “risk” of life. It is as if “self-con­scious ex­ist­ence is pos­sible only where there are or — at least — where there have been bloody fights, wars for prestige.”11 On the oth­er hand, it mat­ters little that he ab­stractly holds firm to the idea of the “realm of free­dom” that Hegel an­ti­cip­ated and that has to be real­ized by Marx­ism.12 It is a re­con­ciled con­di­tion that does not oc­cupy a situ­ation, in which neg­at­iv­ity (time and ac­tion in their present mean­ings) ceases, as do philo­sophy, re­volu­tions and wars as well: his “polit­ic­al-ex­ist­en­tial” an­thro­po­logy sharpened by “de­cision­ism” bears fas­cist­oid traces.13 If one starts from the premise that the Hegel and Marx ex­eges­is out­lined here was dom­in­ant in the France of the thirties, it be­comes clear that Le­fe­b­vre, even with all the un­avoid­able con­ces­sions to the spir­it of the times, took a path all his own. Op­posed to every on­to­logy, to the late-bour­geois as well as to the Sta­lin­ist ones, he de­veloped him­self in­to a crit­ic­al Marx­ist whose stand­ards grew out of a ma­ter­i­al­ist ana­lys­is of the course of his­tory. His aca­dem­ic teach­ers were hardly ap­pro­pri­ate to lead his thought in this dir­ec­tion. In Aix-en-Provence he stud­ied Au­gustine and Pas­cal14 with the lib­er­al Cath­ol­ic Maurice Blondel, and at the Sor­bonne he worked with Léon Brun­schvig, the “in­tel­lec­tu­al­iste” philo­soph­er of judg­ment who was an en­emy of every dia­lectic. What made Le­fe­b­vre (by no means without con­flict) turn to Marx­ism had little to do with uni­versity philo­sophy. It was the polit­ic­al and so­cial up­heavals of the post­war peri­od, and more par­tic­u­larly per­son­al prob­lems, psy­cho­ana­lys­is, and as­so­ci­ation with the lit­er­ary and artist­ic av­ant-garde, the sur­real­ist move­ment.15 Lastly, it was the sus­pi­cion, which turned in­to a firm con­vic­tion, that philo­sophy as it had been handed down to us had demon­strated that it in­creas­ingly was less able to come to grips with, not to men­tion mas­ter, the prob­lems posed by the his­tor­ic­al situ­ation of be­ing and con­scious­ness in so­ci­ety. At this point, the call of Marx and En­gels, in their early writ­ings, for the “neg­a­tion” of philo­sophy and the turn to­ward a prax­is “which would real­ize philo­soph­ic­al in­sight,” seemed to of­fer it­self to him. A pos­sib­il­ity seemed to open up, not only of more or less ar­tic­u­lately mir­ror­ing the frag­ment­a­tion de­vel­op­ing in mod­ern ex­ist­ence — the way it happened in ir­ra­tion­alist ideo­lo­gies — but of grasp­ing it con­cretely, that is, as something which could be tran­scen­ded.

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may-day-1919

Insurgent Notes conference at CUNY Grad Center, Sunday (2.5.17)

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Re­post­ing here the ori­gin­al open call is­sued by In­sur­gent Notes back in Janu­ary, along with the up­dated agenda sched­ule they just re­leased. I’m plan­ning to at­tend, along with a bunch of oth­er people from all around the coun­try. Would be great to see any­one there; In­sur­gent Notes is one of the few present polit­ic­al projects that seems to me worth­while.

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We’re writ­ing to ask you to join us at a pub­lic meet­ing to dis­cuss the broad top­ic of “Build­ing a Rad­ic­al Left in the Age of Trump.” The meet­ing will be held at the CUNY Gradu­ate Cen­ter in New York City on­ Sunday, Feb­ru­ary 5, 2017. We’ll con­firm a date as soon as our in­quir­ies re­gard­ing a pos­sible site are answered.

We are call­ing this meet­ing be­cause, along with many oth­ers, we real­ize that we are en­ter­ing a time of great un­cer­tain­ties and great dangers — dangers that res­ult from what the gov­ern­ment does here and abroad and dangers that res­ult from the emer­gence of a vari­ety of new right-wing pop­u­list and na­tion­al­ist forces that can only be un­der­stood as pre­fas­cist or fas­cist. At the same time, we in­sist that the great ma­jor­ity of Trump sup­port­ers can­not and should not be tarred with such a brush. In­deed, as we wrote in our most re­cent ed­it­or­i­al, “There are people in the Hil­lary camp who are our en­emies, and there are people in the Trump camp who are our po­ten­tial al­lies.” Many people at­trac­ted to the Trump cam­paign, al­tern­at­ively, could be at­trac­ted to a con­sist­ent vis­ion of an al­tern­at­ive to cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety, which up till now has not ex­is­ted. They will not, however, be at­trac­ted to a de­fense of the ex­ist­ing state of af­fairs — no mat­ter how dressed up in no­tions of un­der­stand­ing, tol­er­ance and op­por­tun­ity.

We are con­vinced that the only way out of the ter­rible mess that this coun­try and the world are in is the de­vel­op­ment of a mass rad­ic­al move­ment — a move­ment that will chal­lenge the fun­da­ment­al bases and char­ac­ter­ist­ics of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety with a pro­gram for the rad­ic­al re­con­struc­tion of this so­ci­ety un­der the dir­ect demo­crat­ic con­trol of the im­mense ma­jor­ity of the people. Such a move­ment can­not re­strict it­self to par­ti­cip­a­tion in elect­or­al cam­paigns of any kind. We need to be clear — we do not be­lieve that such a move­ment can be built upon the legacies and tra­di­tions of lib­er­al­ism, pro­gressiv­ism, so­cial demo­cracy, or Sta­lin­ism-Trot­sky­ism-Mao­ism.

Over the course of the last six years, In­sur­gent Notes has pub­lished four­teen is­sues of its on­line journ­al. For the most part, we at­trac­ted mod­est levels of at­ten­tion and sup­port. Re­cently, we be­lieve in re­sponse to art­icles and ed­it­or­i­als fo­cused on the elec­tion and its out­come, we have seen a dra­mat­ic up­swing in the num­ber of vis­its to our web­site, the num­ber of com­ments pos­ted and the num­ber of new sub­scribers.

We feel com­pelled to seize upon that mo­mentum to find out how we might con­trib­ute to the de­vel­op­ment of the move­ment that we so des­per­ately need. We re­cog­nize that such a move­ment will be the res­ult of the com­ing to­geth­er of in­di­vidu­als with dif­fer­ent ex­per­i­ences and polit­ic­al con­vic­tions. To­wards that end, we also be­lieve that we need to come up with new forms of polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tion that can al­low for the defin­i­tion of fun­da­ment­al agree­ments, provide space for on­go­ing pro­duct­ive con­ver­sa­tions and en­able us to act in con­cert as events un­fold.

Let’s briefly de­scribe what our pre­lim­in­ary ideas are for the meet­ing:

  • The meet­ing would take up the bet­ter part of a day — per­haps from 11 am to 5 pm.
  • We hope to in­clude pan­el dis­cus­sions on at least the fol­low­ing ma­jor top­ics:
    • The world’s crises and the elec­tion
    • Class and race: is there any­thing new to say?
    • An anticap­it­al­ist vis­ion
    • Cre­at­ing a new lan­guage of hope and re­volt
    • Nam­ing and fight­ing male su­prem­acy
    • Ima­gin­ing new forms of polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tion.
  • We also hope to in­clude op­por­tun­it­ies for people to get to know each oth­er and to act­ively en­gage in con­ver­sa­tions about the most press­ing of the is­sues.
  • We’re go­ing to work hard be­fore and dur­ing the meet­ing to in­sure that present­a­tions and com­ments go far bey­ond the mere re­state­ment of pri­or con­vic­tions or the re-ar­guing of old de­bates.
  • We’d like to en­ter­tain sug­ges­tions for next steps after the meet­ing.
  • We’re hop­ing to spon­sor an in­form­al so­cial event at the end of the day.

Please feel free to cir­cu­late this mes­sage to people who you think might be in­ter­ested. We’ll be post­ing de­tails about the meet­ing on this web­site.

If you have any ques­tions, please write to us.

In hope­ful solid­ar­ity,
The ed­it­ors

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This com­ing Sunday join In­sur­gent Notes for a day-long series of dis­cus­sions around the Trump pres­id­ency and the way for­ward for the re­volu­tion­ary left. Here is the day’s pro­gram:

Agenda for In­sur­gent Notes pub­lic meet­ing

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Sunday, Feb­ru­ary 5, 2017
CUNY Gradu­ate Cen­ter
365 Fifth Av­en­ue/Room 5409

10:00 AM – 11:00 AM Cof­fee/re­gis­tra­tion/in­tro­duc­tions
11:00 AM – 11:30 AM Get­ting star­ted — Wel­come and re­view of agenda
11:30 AM – 12:30 PM Mak­ing sense of the elect­or­al cam­paigns and their res­ults: A con­ver­sa­tion between Claire Ca­hen, Loren Gold­ner, and Arya Za­hedi
12:30 PM – 1:15 PM Anti-fas­cism and the alt-Right: A present­a­tion by Mat­thew Ly­ons of Three-Way Fight
1:15 PM – 1:45 PM Lunch & in­form­al con­ver­sa­tions
1:45 PM – 2:30 PM For wo­men’s lib­er­a­tion in an age of re­ac­tion: A con­ver­sa­tion Zhana Kur­ti and Wilson Sher­win
2:30 PM – 3:15 PM Against white­ness again: A con­ver­sa­tion between Amiri Barks­dale, Shemon Salam, and Jar­rod Sha­na­han
3:15 PM – 3:45 PM Brief re­ports on or­gan­iz­ing projects
3:45 PM – 4:30 PM Open dis­cus­sion — Re­ac­tions to the meet­ing/un­answered ques­tions
4:30 PM – 5:00 PM Wrap­ping up — Pos­sible next steps
5:00 PM – 7:00 PM So­cial gath­er­ing

Please note:

  1. At least half of the time in all ses­sions will be re­served for par­ti­cipant dis­cus­sion.
  2. Lunch will be catered; we’d like to ask par­ti­cipants not to leave the build­ing dur­ing lunch.
  3. The Gradu­ate Cen­ter is wheel­chair ac­cess­ible.
  4. We will have a video con­nec­tion — via Google Hangout — to en­able re­mote par­ti­cip­a­tion. There will be an easy sign-in by way of a web link. In­ter­ested in­di­vidu­als should send a mes­sage to ed­it­ors@in­sur­gent­notes.com by Janu­ary 31, 2017 to re­quest the link.
  5. Con­tri­bu­tions will be so­li­cited to cov­er meet­ing costs.
  6. A pic­ture ID is re­quired for ad­mis­sion to the Gradu­ate Cen­ter.
  7. Preregis­tra­tion — we strongly en­cour­age preregis­tra­tion. Send an email mes­sage with name, best email ad­dress and cell phone num­ber to ed­it­ors@in­sur­gent­notes.com. Prefer­ably by Janu­ary 31, 2017.
  8. We hope to have au­dio, and pos­sibly video, re­cord­ings of the present­a­tions and dis­cus­sions.
  9. If you have any dif­fi­culties get­ting to the meet­ing, please send an email to the ed­it­ors’ ad­dress on Feb­ru­ary 7th to ob­tain as­sist­ance.