Henri Lefebvre’s “Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche”

It seems common practice nowadays to fit Marx into one kind of triad or another. Marx-Lenin-Mao, for instance. Or Marx-Freud-Nietzsche – Ricoeur’s three “masters of suspicion.” Henri Lefebvre, eclectic and imaginative as ever, gives us his own triad of Continental giants in his aptly titled, newly translated, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche (or, The Realm of Shadows). Such a title, originally published in 1975, seems burdened by two weights as it emerges in English in the year 2020. On the one hand, what is it but one more text on the relation of Hegel to Marx, or Marx to Nietzsche, or whatever trite “who said what and who took from who” game that will bend the shelves of academics somewhere? On the other hand, the context of post-1968 France – with its vigorous debates in philosophy and its stylish intellectuals – once the very means of gilding such subjects, has become dull and worn through the numerous reflections, critiques, and biographies of the period. What, then, could a book on over-analyzed philosophies from an over-analyzed time possibly offer?

In the first section of the triad, Lefebvre sets his sights on the dialectician par excellence: G.W.F. Hegel. Rebelling against his usual label of “Hegelian Marxist,” Lefebvre takes great pains to condemn a “totalizing” philosophical system, one that functions by “eliminating what does not suit it.”(53) Lefebvre does not entirely trash the dialectic, but argues that Hegel and the Hegelians engaged in a “self-destruction of the dialectic that they generated,” while Marx and Engels weaponized the Dialectic against itself (primarily through reintroducing The Social). Lefebvre’s most damning criticism comes via linking Hegelian thought to the emergence of the Bourgeois state. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right becomes an apologia for the domination of the Social via the Political – an apologia for class itself.

Max Ernst, from A Week of Kindness

The scorching condemnation of the state is a refreshing one. How – Lefebvre asks – could we (Marxists, Communists) have ever made the mistake to think the state was ever a virtue, ever a feature of the world we wish to see? Lefebvre, the humanist, speaks a similar language as his structuralist rivals when it comes to issues of the state:

The state, as a consequence, misunderstands knowledge by absorbing it and becoming an ideological power. Religion often, and morality always, serve to dissimulate the projects pursued by politicians. This use of ideology cannot conceal the other aspects of state power: its stranglehold on space and knowledge (the institutionalization of both of these). The ‘ideological apparatuses’ of the state explain nothing by themselves. The use of ideology indicates contradictions in a nascent or developed state within knowledge, cognition and ideology; the result being that the Hegelian brand image no longer corresponds to the state reality, without going so far as to contradict itself, since morality (ethics) is as much part of the Hegelian construction as law. (74)

Marx’s categories are the proper opposition to the ever-invasive growth and idolization of the Hegelian state, for Marx’s work precisely realizes the role of the Social and its inevitable opposition to the bureaucracy and technocracy of states.

For Marx, freedom is defined on the social level, and only on this level, to the exclusion of economic determinisms as such. Who is this individual? A social being, says Marx, a node or nucleus, a (mobile) centre of social relations. Their degree of practical and concrete reality, thus of freedom, depends on the complexity and ‘wealth’ of these relationships. … Social relations include relations of production, but they envelop these by superseding them. Thus, social relationships that bear the names ‘culture’ or ‘artistic production’ go beyond the technical and social division of labour. (117)

Is the “Social” really the source of the radical on its own though? Is the opposition between “state” and “Social” so clear-cut? Certainly Marx’s early writings are full of insight into the tyranny of the bourgeois state and its suppression of the Social, insights that were developed and transformed through Marx’s later political-economic work (there will be no whining about a supposedly overlooked “epistemological break” here). But Marx’s work does not simply maintain this opposition, because in Marx’s work there is an investigation of the contradictions within the Social itself. Perhaps we should not be so surprised that one of Lefebvre’s students would dedicate his career towards decrying the existence of any Social existence at all, gleefully pointing out reactionary and totalitarian impulses that lurked in the ambiguous language of a de-facto “Social.” (I refer, of course, to the one-and-only Jean Baudrillard).

Lefebvre produces real insights, but in the forms of one-off lines that flow by: we must oppose the state; we must transform social relations to control the means of production, not just expand them; the working class must abolish itself, and all classes, not merely attempt to maintain power, the construction of contemporary society requires both new research and consistent understanding of Marx’s writing, etc., etc. Ultimately, however, Lefebvre’s urging that we should be more “dialectical” and cognizant of contradictions falls short when he resorts to his category of “space.” Lefebvre’s space may have been intended as a stepping-stone for sociological analysis, but one suspects a sinking ship: a precursor of modern discussions of “globalization” and “neoliberalism” and other overburden categories that cover up real analysis of actual developments. Space may be an arena of strategy and tactics, but effective revolutionary combat requires more than a knowledge of the battlefield before the fighting starts.

Lefebvre attempts to avoid the dangers of homogenizing “society” and “space” through the third star in his constellation: Nietzsche. And, as so often occurs with the introduction of Nietzsche, things seem to fall apart. From Hegel- the State. From Marx- the Social. From Nietzsche? “Civilization” and “values.”

“Above society,” we are told, “above ‘culture,’ something exists (certainly not the state) that we can call civilization. … Civilization is made up of values, in other words, of meanings, which live and die. It is within society that these values and meanings take shape and acquire their form. In the best of cases, such as Greece for example, or the Renaissance in Europe, a great civilization finds shape and strength: light, dancing, vigour.” (182) And here, Lefebvre the poet, right when he begins to talk about the philosopher of poetry, seems to run out of steam. The body, poetic discourse, language, tragedy, redemption, it’s all there in the usual form. A sampling:

Poetry redeems. It manifests the power of metamorphosis that is revealed in appreciation, judgement, evaluation, as well as in play and art. … Vital energy – the will to power – is superseded not by killing itself off but by overcoming itself and asserting itself in a different sphere: poetry. (166)

The superhuman, far from pressing the taste for power to the extreme, on the contrary redeems themselves from it, so inaugurating a different light, a different horizon, a different world. (167)

The enemy is then identity, which attaches logic to mental, social, political reality. It makes possible fixation. (179)

Endless sentences of similar ilk are typed out in the penultimate chapter, but for a reflection on the “vital” Nietzsche they lack much punch or vigor. Zine culture and fragmentation may be old-hat now, but Lefebvre certainly would be more interesting here if he allowed himself a tiny bit more of the aphoristic and disconnected. Lefebvre’s gambit – a constellation of figures who are contemporaneous but not rigorously cross-examined – fails here. With Hegel and Marx Lefebvre has attempted to dust off old texts, his examinations are less than rigorous, but (right or wrong) they are coherent and conveyed with gusto. With Nietzsche this style gets stuck. Nietzsche, the famously unsystemic philosopher, is just plain boring in such terms. Lefebvre cannot provide a deeper, more rigorous, analysis of Nietzsche nor can he move towards a fragmented, purely poetic style. Either move would actually disrupt the structure laid out in the book. While there are comments on the importance of the individual, of values, of conflict, of joy, we are never really treated to any justification or analysis that properly explains why Nietzsche is of importance for the revolutionary struggle. Simple comparisons to Marx (both opposing Hegel as the state, both German) lead to simple conclusions, including the mandatory ending note on how we really need to talk about power:

To break class society by class struggle? Help the working class to supersede by negating it? Destroy the state after undermining its political apparatuses? True, if this is possible and as soon as it is possible. But this then raises the question of power, hardly broached by Marx and eluded by official Marxist thought. Now, Nietzsche brings this question to the full light of day, in complete lucidity.(193)

Was it brought to the full light of day, though? Power most certainly remains an unanswered question, but not for a lack of reading Nietzsche.

To summarize the three examinations: 1) Hegel, in defining the dialectic, produces a legitimate historical revolution wherein modernity both expands through the reproduction of the state, yet dominates and oppresses through the synthesis of knowledge and the bureaucracy. 2) Marx, through analysis of society, locates the fact that real social life and needs produce revolutionary potential for the overthrow of the limitations of the state, whether or not Marx’s immediate predictions proved to be accurate. 3) Nietzsche, also opposed to the Hegelian state, celebrates the redemptive power of the individual who escapes the Will to Power via the body and creative capacity for the self.

In the end, though, what are we left with? Lefebvre is to be applauded for his simultaneously bracing and poetic writing, refreshingly clear compared to many of his contemporaries. But it leaves the sense of being more artful than insightful. Perhaps the real power of Lefebvre’s investigation in this text is not so much the description he gives to the world, but rather the tension he displays in the unresolved problems of Marxist theory. Do we return to Marx? Do we open up to new, contemporary thought? Do we seek the consistency in the work of our fore-bearers? Or do we find the contradictions, the weakest links to be reforged and bound to new lines of thought? Lefebvre would urge us to do both. It is a lesson worth learning: to set theoretical models in relation to one another, we must first try to understand the theories on their own terms. Thoroughness, even with non-systemic theories, must be pursued for them to be applied, refuted, contradicted, etc.

And yet, has Lefebvre’s lesson already been distorted? It seems the form, rather than the content, has been learned, as exemplified by the cover designed by Verso: colorful mishmashes from other titles, decidedly more clever than clarifying. Perhaps worse than the lack of clarification in contemporary pop-theory is a lack of fundamentally interesting and applicable questions to the present moment. (Such a diagnosis, of course, is not descriptive of all contemporary theory. But where should worthwhile theory be found? And who is reading it? Who should we applaud for doing the hard work of theory “on the ground”?) Perhaps worse yet is the simple absence of any literary capability worth a damn. Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche then, in spite of any insight it may carry, reads as a nostalgia piece, “oh for the theory that once was! Erudite and inspiring! Rigorous and yet poetic!” Perhaps the gift of this translation is not so much the commentary on any of the thinkers, but a reminder of the unfinished and hazy nature of our categories, of the way we absorb criticisms and turn them into justifications, and of the farcical repetition we play out to repeat some long-lost golden age of theory. “Who to choose? A rather naïve and crude question…” quite right Lefebvre. But perhaps we need to instead be asking ourselves what, in our own work – those 21st century creations that seem to be both bricolage and dogma – do we need to leave behind? It seems that theory today shares the description of the bureaucracies Lefebvre condemns: “the rational and the irrational are mingled, the first turning to absurdity and the second working itself out in very well-reasoned formalisms and texts.”(106)

Perhaps more work remains to be done in the Anglophone world on relating Lefebvre’s oeuvre to itself: to read the section on Hegel with his Dialectical Materialism, the section on Marx with his Production of Space, the section on Nietzsche with Critique of Everyday Life. Lefebvre’s writing is fecund, and I would argue an excellent early touchstone for those learning about radical theory. But any approach to his heterogeneous body of work should require us to recognize that there is no magical category, no perfect method, just waiting ready for us – even in the realm of criticism.

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