I never met Henri Lefebvre, the French Marxist philosopher, nor saw him lecture. Some of my friends who did said he was a real knockout. Others who had contact with him recall his warm, slow, melodious voice, his boyish passions, his virility—even in old age—and the posse of young, attractive women invariably in his train. Portraits cast him as a Rabelaisian monk and Kierkegaardian seducer all rolled into one. I’m sorry I missed this act, missed the man himself, en direct, live. But I did see him on British TV once, back in the early 1990s. The series, “The Spirit of Freedom,” was strictly for insomniacs and appeared in the wee hours. Each of the four programs tried to assess the legacy of Left French intellectuals during the twentieth-century. The cynical tone throughout wasn’t too surprising given that its narrator and brainchild was Bernard-Henri Lévy—BHL, as the French media know him—Paris-Match’s answer to Jean-Paul Sartre. The night I watched, an old white-haired man sat in front of the camera, dressed in a blue denim work shirt and rumpled brown tweed jacket. In his ninetieth year, it was obvious to viewers Lefebvre hadn’t long left to live. Even Lévy described his interviewee as “tired that afternoon. His face was pallid, his eyes blood-shot. I felt he was overwhelmed from the start and clearly bored at having to answer my questions...I’d come hoping he would play a certain role, and this he did with a show of goodwill I hadn’t expected. I have to admit he also did it with elegance and talent.”
For those savvy with Lefebvre, either in person or on the page, this show of goodwill, and his elegance and talent in answering questions, wouldn’t shock. That he’d been around for almost the entire twentieth-century meant he possessed a unique, first-hand insight on French intellectual affairs. During that time, Lefebvre had lived through two World Wars, drunk wine and coffee with the Dadaists and Surrealists, joined, left and joined again the French Communist Party (PCF), fought for the Resistance Movement, driven a cab in Paris, broadcasted on radio in Toulouse, taught philosophy and sociology at numerous universities and high-schools, godfathered the 1968 generation of student rebels. At the same time, he’d authored over 60 books, since translated into 30 different languages, introduced into France a whole body of humanist Marxism, made brilliant analyses on dialectics and alienation, on everyday life and urbanism, on the state and the role of space in the “survival of capitalism.”
And yet, it wasn’t Lefebvre’s own work that concerned Lévy. Lévy was more interested in other figures from France’s past: poet surrealists André Breton and Louis Aragon, writer-communists Paul Nizan and Georges Politzer, and philosopher Alexandre Kojève (who made Hegel hip in interwar France). Lefebvre knew each and all, and that’s what Lévy wanted to talk about. Lefebvre had been an indispensable observer, a reporter from the frontline, who’d been there and befriended other French intellectuals and outlived them all. Now he could recount old tales to upstart disbelievers, re-live life and death struggles of bygone days, days now buried in the basement of our imaginations. Lefebvre, too, was somebody whom the incredulous Lévy could summon up to discredit the radical cause, to scoff at that silly quest for liberty, equality and fraternity.
I’d been overjoyed to glimpse Henri Lefebvre that night, and still vividly remember the moment. But I’ve hated BHL ever since, and cringe each time I see him on French TV. Little did I realize back then—couldn’t realize—was how Lévy’s “Spirit of Freedom,” and the companion book Les Aventures de la Liberté, set the tone for the shallowness and narrowness the new century would soon epitomize. The Berlin Wall hadn’t long tumbled down, and every capitalist punter was wallowing in the glory of its demise. A seventy-year bad-rap suddenly became a spectacular media bonanza. A new spirit of freedom dawned and we’re still in its scary midst. Thus, the same year as Les Aventures de la Liberté hit French bookstores (1991), across the Atlantic another scurrilous book by Francis Fukuyama danced to a similar refrain: “the end of history.” Extending an article-length thesis aired a few years earlier in the neo-con The National Interest, Fukuyama flagged up “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution...the final form of human government”: liberal bourgeois democracy. We’ve reached the moment, Fukuyama bragged, of “remarkable consensus.” Liberal democracy had won its legitimacy, conquering all rival ideologies, and, he thought, we should be glad. Hereditary monarchy ran its course a while back; so had fascism; and now, apparently, had communism. There’s no other tale to tell, no alternative left, no other big idea, nothing aside from bourgeois democracy. Intriguingly, 1991 was also the year something else gave way, when another big idea bit the dust. During the middle of the night, on June 29th, a few days after his 90th birthday, Henri Lefebvre passed away peacefully in a hospital in Pau, Southwest France; the twentieth-century, the “short twentieth-century” as historian Eric Hobsbawm described it, replete with all its promise and horrors, had come to a close. (Hobsbawm actually identifies 1991 as its cut-off point.)
Lefebvre’s departure accorded a lengthy obituary in the major French daily, Le Monde, who pithily described his life, as only the French could, as “adventures of a dialectician.” The commentary bid adieu to the “last great classical philosopher,” to the last great French Marxist. This wasn’t so much a valediction to a generation, said Le Monde, as a style, a style that wasn’t afraid to philosophize on a grand, sweeping scale, nor to “de-scholarize philosophy,” to make it living and pungent, normative and holistic. Indeed, “to think the totality” was Henri Lefebvre’s very own pocket definition of philosophy, the magic ingredient of his “metaphilosophy,” through which, like Marx, he’d grasp everything “at the root.” His heterodox Marxist rigor, his optimism of the intellect as well as the will, his frank concern for profane human happiness, all seem especially instructive and inspiring in an era when crony philistinism has supposedly rendered such a style old hat.
“Love and woman have had the profoundest influence on me,” Lefebvre once confessed, typically. “I’ve taken only three realities seriously: love, philosophy and the Party. Three disappointments? Up to a certain point.” These words, and other nuggets assembled in Conversation avec Henri Lefebvre, contrast markedly with the somber clichés of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Les Aventures de la Liberté. Conducted around the same time, in January 1991, in his rambling 18th century family house in the Pyrenean bastide of Navarrenx, a more upbeat Lefebvre emerges. Close to death yet still full of life, Lefebvre faced two interlocutors, in the company of Catherine Regulier, his longstanding wife, a former communist militant 50 years his junior, and a cat that refused to budge from the old man’s lap. It’s hard to imagine a less narrow-minded, more self-effacing and self-critical Marxist in these discussions, a utopian cognizant of the discredited utopias of the Eastern Bloc. A feisty critic of Stalinism from its inception, Lefebvre spent thirty-years ducking, diving and dodging the PCF bigwigs, who followed orders from Moscow, and took no prisoners. These endless run-ins with the hacks, and his rejection of Soviet-style socialism, never squared to a rejection of socialism itself, nor of Marxism, since neither in the USSR bore any resemblance to Lefebvre’s democratic vision. “Socialism until now,” he claimed, “failed before the problem of the everyday. It had promised to change life, but only did so superficially...The wound there is that everything became too serious, horribly serious. They didn’t know how to improve the everyday for real people...life was monotone, monochrome, tainted by a repetitive ideology.”
Our “New World Order,” as Poppy Bush proclaimed, likewise in 1991, has created its own monotone and monochrome world, a reality continually tainted by the repetitive ideology of the free market.* But the Stalinist One-State we once knew over there has since come home to roost here, a little closer to home, in the guise of a new Washington consensus that lies, cheats and bullies its way to capitalist fame and glory. Never has deceit and corruption been so dominant a part of a political arsenal. Beset by conflict, crisis, war, terrorist threat and fundamentalism of every stripe, never has the legitimacy of liberal democracy looked so extraordinarily fragile. And yet, at the same time, never has there been such a cowardly capitulation to the present, such a bankruptcy of ideas about what the future can and ought to be. The tragedy is palpable. Truth and falsity have degenerated into interchangeable language games, fair game for the rich and powerful, for those who control the media. Fukuyama’s belief that liberal democracies have less incentive for war, and have universally satisfied people’s need for reciprocal recognition, seems even more ridiculous than it did a decade ago.
Lefebvre was a rare and necessary breed, a utopian intellectual engagé, somebody who moved with the times yet helped shape and defy those times, interpreting the world at the same time as he somehow changed it. Philosopher-cum-sociologist, sociologist-cum-literary critic, literary critic-cum-urbanist, urbanist-cum-geographer, he was too eclectic to be any one of those categories alone. Too communist to be a romantic, too romantic to be a communist, his oeuvre bewilders and bedazzles, defies pigeonholing and classification, and makes a mockery of the disciplinary border patrols now stifling corporate universities, the University, Inc. Who could conceive professor Henri fidgeting nervously at the next departmental research evaluation or getting the gripes about tenure when so much more is now at stake? “I am in essence,” he wrote in his autobiography La Somme et le Reste (1958), “oppositional, a heretic.” “I pronounce myself irreducibly against the existing order...against a ‘being’ that searches for justifications beyond judgment. I think the role of thought is to harry what exists by critique, by irony, by satire.”
“I comprehend the world with my mind,” he said, “not with my flesh. For I think with my flesh. I refuse to condemn spontaneity, that of the masses, that of the individual.” Lefebvre was a Marxist who sought not to denounce student exuberance in 1968, but to foster it, to use it productively, constructively, tactically, alongside skeptical working class rank-and-filers. In The Explosion (1969), scribbled as the Molotov cocktails ignited on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, Lefebvre assumed the role of a radical honest broker, trying to galvanize the “old” Left—his generation, who tended to rally around class, Party and trade unions—with an emergent “New Left,” a younger crew of militants, less steeped in theory, who organized around anti-imperialism and identity themes, and who spoke the language of culture and everyday life. The parallels with post-Seattle agitation are striking. The Lefebvrian desire to conjoin young and old progressives around a concerted anti-capitalist struggle remains as pressing and as instructive as ever. He warned us long ago that the ruling class will always try to suppress and co-opt contestation, will always try to convert romantic possibility into realistic actuality. Lefebvre knew that in desiring the impossible, in reaching for the stars, we might at least one day stand upright.
His was a praxis that borrowed more from Rosa Luxemburg than Lenin, whiffed of Norman O. Brown rather than stank of Leonid Brezhnev. In the 1970s, somebody asked Lefebvre if, in fact, he was really an anarchist. “No,” he replied. “I’m a Marxist, of course, so that one day we can all become anarchists!” His Marxism was unashamedly Rabelaisian, nurtured in the fields as well as the factories, festive and rambunctious, prioritizing “lived moments,” irruptive acts of contestation: building occupations and street demos, free expressionist art and theater, flying pickets, rent strikes and a general strike. Here the action might be serious—sometimes deadly serious—or playful. Lefebvre dug the idea of politics as festival. Rural festal traditions, he said in Critique of Everyday Life, “tighten social links at the same time as they give free rein to all desires which have been pent up by collective discipline and necessities of work.” Festivals represent “Dionysiac life...differing from everyday life only in the explosion of forces which had been slowly accumulating in and via everyday life itself.”
Fascinated by Lefebvre’s Dionysian roots, a little while back I decided to check them out for myself. Arriving at Lyon from JFK, renting a little Peugeot 106, blasting bleary-eyed and jet-lagged to Béarn, to Navarrenx, in the foothills of the Pyrénées-Atlantique, I knew then I’d discovered the rustic ribald body to the Parisian Professor’s cool analytical head. A marvel of Middle Age town planning aside the River Oloron, Navarrenx remains charming, sleepy and just as vital five-centuries on. Imposing ramparts with two ancient town gates—Porte Saint-Germain and Porte Saint-Antoine—encircle its grid-pattern of higgledy-piggledy streets that are today lined with a few boucheries and boulangeries, the odd melancholy café, and several pizzerias. Those walls hark back to 1537, when the King of Navarre commissioned an Italian architect, Fabricio Siciliano, to refortify the 14th century originals. Thirty-odd years later, Navarrenx withstood a three-month siege defending the honor of Jeanne d’Albret, sovereign of Béarn and mother of King Henri IV. Two-centuries on, in 1774, the town underwent extensive renovation and re-planning; many structures, including chez Lefebvre at rue Saint-Germain, hail from this period.
At the nearby Place des Casernes, an almost-deserted square shadowed by the Porte Saint-Antoine, modern-day travelers can find no-frills room-and-board at Navarrenx’s sole inn, the Hôtel du Commerce. My first, and only, evening at the Hôtel du Commerce seems comical in retrospect. I’d decided to take a twilight stroll along Navarrenx’s ramparts, imbibe its atmosphere in the balmy summer air. When darkness fell, and after a hearty supper of local salmon, I returned to find my room infested with mosquitoes; the South West’s damp, mild climate is a veritable breeding ground for these pests, and I’d dumbly left the light on and shutters open. Too late for room service, too tired after my car journey, I chose the fastest remedy: to splatter every single one with a roll-up newspaper. Next morning, in broad daylight, I realized the mess I’d made to the walls and ceiling, much to the chagrin of Monsieur le propriétaire, who wasn’t amused. We exchanged words; I placated, apologized, promised to clean everything up, which I hastily did. Yet the portly patron wasn’t impressed, hinting he didn’t like Americans anyway, despite me being English, and urged us—my wife and I—to pay up and clear out, sooner rather than later. Thus, on our debut visit, we were banished from Navarrenx, kicked out like renegade pilgrims of Saint-Jacques de Compostelle. We were the talk of the town for a while; Henri might’ve sympathized had he still been around.
The banishment had been a strange blessing. Forced to flee Navarrenx, I discovered the Basque town of Mauléon, twenty-minutes down the road, and the wonderful Bidegain hotel, which serves the lovely rich, deep-bodied Irouléguy wine I knew Henri tippled. As the signature red-shutters and Basque red, green and white flags became more prominent, I saw and felt the proximity of Navarrenx to Basque county; I began to grasp up-close how its culture and tradition impacted upon Lefebvre’s own spirit and personality. His “fanatically religious” mother was of Basque stock. He wrote: “‘You speak against religion,’ she and her sisters scorned me. ‘You will go to hell’.” Lefebvre recognized the contradictions traversing Basque culture because those same contradictions traversed him: the Basques “have a very profound sense of sin; and yet, they love to live, love to eat and drink. This contradiction is irresolvable, because it’s a fact I’ve often stated: the sense of sin excites pleasure. The greater the sin, the greater also the pleasure.”
Inside Lefebvre’s body and mind lay a complex dialectic of particularity and generality, of Eros and Logos, of place and space; he was a Catholic country boy who’d roamed Pyrenean meadows, a sophisticated Parisian philosopher who’d discoursed on Nietzsche and the death of God. He was rooted in the South West yet in love with Paris, tormented by a Marxist penchant for global consciousness. This triple allegiance tempered hometown excesses, made him a futuristic man with a foot in the past, someone who distanced himself from regional separatism. “Today,” he warned, “certain [Basque] pose the question of a rupture with France. I see, in regionalism, the risk of being imprisoned in particularity. I can’t follow them that far...One is never, in effect, only Basque...but French, European, inhabitant of planet earth, and a good deal else to boot. The modern identity can only be contradictory and assumed as such. It also implies global consciousness.” The incarnation of a man of tradition and a Joycean everyman is suggestive in an age that frantically invokes an essential purity of identity, or else wants to homogenize everything in a nihilistic market rage.
Not too long ago, I sat in the rare book archives of Columbia University’s Butler Library, reading the 100-odd letters Henri Lefebvre sent his longtime friend and collaborator Norbert Guterman. Guterman, a Jew, exited France in 1933 and settled permanently in New York. For over forty-years, until Guterman’s death in 1984, the two men corresponded. In the summer of 1935, Lefebvre visited New York, stayed with Guterman, and they busied themselves on a book that tried to explain why, despite being counter to its collective interests, the German working class ran with Hitler. Lefebvre and Guterman appealed for a Popular Front to reconcile fractional differences and to catalyze a gauchiste assault. Alas, their book, published the following year, was denounced in “official” communist circles, dismissed as Hegelian and revisionist. Yet the thesis somehow survived the Party and the plague, and its intriguing title is apt for explaining the zeitgeist of Bush’s America seventy-years down the line: La Conscience Mystifiée—mystified consciousness, a consciousness not only usurped by the fetishism of the market, but alienated from itself by “absolute truths” of nationhood, patriotism, God and the President.
Lefebvre’s letters from this period are shadowed by a pessimism of impending doom that has a familiar ring about it: “a funk prevents the people from thinking and living,” he wrote in October of 1935; “The moment of catastrophe approaches,” he said in another communiqué a few months later. “I will not make a will,” Lefebvre confessed, on the brink (August, 1939). “What I would have been able to bequeath isn’t yet born...I don’t think of posterity in writing to you, but of our work, our fraternity, our true friendship...” Columbia’s “Guterman Collection” is a moving testimony of an enduring friendship that survived a century of war and peace, love and hate, displacement and disruption. Yellowing letters, written on tissue-paper parchment, on regional Communist Party notepaper (“La Voix du Midi”), on postcards mailed from Algeria, Greece, Italy, Brazil and Spain—all bear Lefebvre’s typical cursive: free-flowing and fast-paced, spread frantically and unevenly across the page. His pace mimics both political mood and personal circumstance. “Mon cher vieux Norbert,” many of Lefebvre’s letters begin, affectionately. “I would love to know what you’re doing, and how you live in America.” Lefebvre bemoans his dire family situation during the Occupation, his penury after the peace, his struggles to find a steady teaching job, his latest love, latest wife: Evelyne, Nicole, Catherine, whose own letters crop up in the archive. “I spend my time,” explains Evelyne to Norbert, “typing what Henri has feverishly written to earn us a few sous.”
Ideas and books are discussed, ongoing projects debated, future ones planned: “We can, in combining our efforts,” Lefebvre wrote in January of 1936, “establish a circulation of ideas.” A little more than a decade later, he said that “I know what we need well enough: it’s not that I send you news from time to time, but that we reestablish—like 10 years earlier—a continuous current of exchanges and information. It is this continuity and intensity that makes our correspondence a veritable laboratory preparing and experimenting with a common oeuvre.” Seeing Lefebvre’s original hand, glimpsing his crossings-out and annotations, deciphering his certainties and doubts, exposes the shallowness of a communicative culture based exclusively around email and cell-phones. In one later letter, the septuagenarian laments how his grandchildren know only the telephone; they’ve forgotten how to write letters! Another note, dated Oct.18, 1977, says: “I almost forgot to tell you that Catherine [Regulier] and me are making a book together: a series of philosophical and political dialogues between a very young woman and a monsieur who has no more than a youthfulness of heart.” The eventual text, La révolution n’est pas ce qu’elle était (1978)—“the revolution isn’t what it used to be”—expressed Lefebvre’s open-ended, inventive Marxist spirit, which continually updated itself as society updated itself. It’s a spirit we can still tap. Indeed, as the sclerosis of our body politic hardens to the point of apoplexy, we need, perhaps more than ever, not only a new Popular Front, but also a certain monsieur’s “youthfulness of heart.”
ANDY MERRIFIELD is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.