‘Marxist Thought and the City’ reviewed by Jared Bly

Marxist Thought and the City

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2016. 158pp. $20 pb.
ISBN 9780816698752

Reviewed by Jared Bly

About the reviewer

Jared C Bly is a translator and PhD student in philosophy at Villanova University. Aside from …


Henri Lefebvre’s Marxist Thought and the City fits into a wider constellation of texts addressing the production of space from the vantage point of a reformulated historical materialism. In comparison to other translations, this volume differs substantially, for example, from the sprawling exploration in The Production of Space or the more programmatic The Urban Revolution. More thematically circumscribed than these other works, the present volume offers an attentive reading of Marx and Engels with respect to the theme of the city. In this regard, the text reads like a well-crafted set of research notes, constituting a preliminary step toward the concrete elaboration of ‘the urban’ as a historical mode of production. Yet, beyond an assiduous foregrounding of the urban milieu in Marx and Engel’s oeuvre, a number of other important philosophical concerns emerge both in response to Lefebvre’s immediate political conjuncture and to the ongoing philosophical debates in Marxist theory that were hotly contested at that time.

Geographer Stuart Elden provides an illuminating forward that contextualizes the book with respect to Lefebvre’s other texts, emphasizing how the city becomes a medium through which Lefebvre revamps certain neglected or underdeveloped themes within Marxist tradition: everyday life, the rural, the state, globalization and the ‘worldwide’. Elden further underscores how this conceptual overhaul responds not to an antiquarian or purely scholastic impulse but instead to the urgency of the political present; ninety years after the death of Marx, Lefebvre is well aware that the analyses need resituating to speak to the contemporary condition. Forty years on from this work, and twenty five years after Lefebvre’s death, further developments would render that need even more pressing, though it is striking how much of what energized Lefebvre remains an issue (ix). This text therefore performs much of the hermeneutic and exegetical leg work aimed at more broadly resituating of Marxist thought and at formulating a political praxis that would intervene therein.

In the wake of the tempestuous events of May 68 in France, Lefebvre thought that the modern city signaled a new historico-economic epoch into which the West had entered after having passed through industrial capitalism. In distinction from the industrial period, this urban mode of production exhibits an entirely different set of relations and processes generative of surplus value. Despite the fact that the city appears as the apex of capitalism’s dialectical progression, bringing with it new forms of exploitation and the egregious destruction of the natural environment, Lefebvre nevertheless remains hopeful for establishing a Marxist political line from out of this relatively new mode of production. In other words, just as Marx in Capital constructs a critique of the totality of the capitalist mode of production on the basis of bourgeois ideology—that is, political economy itself—Lefebvre sees in a properly dialectical fashion the revolutionary possibility of superseding capitalism inherent within the relations, practices and ideologies that characterize the urban milieu. Consequently, the task of the utmost urgency is to gain a correct theoretical understanding of the fundamental nature of the urban mode of production in order to enact its overturning.

Beyond Elden’s forward, this book contains a very brief introductory note, five relatively distinct chapters and a short conclusion that neatly summarizes Lefebvre’s main points. Rather than beginning with Marx, Chapter 1 investigates the problematics of the urban and the social production of space in Engel’s The Condition of the Working Class in England. It is worth noting, echoing a remark in Elden’s forward, that throughout the text Lefebvre seeks to foreground the singularity of Engel’s thought, stressing how his concern for lived experience often rendered his analyses more concrete than those of Marx who was frequently preoccupied with purely methodological and thus more abstract concerns.

In Chapter 1, Lefebvre examines the situation of the English proletariat in cities and, via a complicated socio-spatial dialectic, furnishes an image of the city that at once shapes and is simultaneously shaped by its constitutive social relations. As for the working class, this urban space destabilizes their social position, perpetually subjecting them to a precarious existence and deleterious environmental conditions. Following this emphasis on the worker’s experience, Lefebvre demonstrates how an amalgam of materialist and experiential analyses can be marshalled in order to derive a number of foundational concepts for spatialized historical materialism: the difference between the pre-capitalist political city (the Greek polis or Rome) and the industrial city, the antagonism of the city and the countryside (town and country), the tense juxtaposition of contradiction (rich vs poor, splendor vs. ugliness), the repression by the bourgeois class via spatial fragmentation and separation (ghettoization, gentrification, gerrymandering), urbanism as means of generating surplus value through the oversaturation and overcrowding of social space, and the extreme isolation of the human being (urban alienation).

Chapter 2 moves into the writings of Marx, examining the city in a number of early and middle period texts such as the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology. This chapter also explores the transition between pre-feudal society and the feudal mode of production, as well as the transition from feudalism to modern capitalism. The antagonism between town and country appears as the central spatial contradiction of medieval society and the city therefore becomes the determinate locus for the emergence of capitalism:

It is within the city, therefore, in and through city life, in opposition to nature, to peasant life, to the countryside already shaped by agricultural labor that a conflict with tremendous consequences unfolds. Property does not achieve its abstract (that is private) essence, inseparable from abstract (that is social) labor, other than by wearing down the immediate, primitive ownership of land, until its ultimate disappearance (25).

In the feudal mode of production, the town was in fact subordinate to the country and the merchant class of the towns beholden to the landed feudal lords. Nonetheless, the medieval town appears as the site of primitive accumulation that eventually led to its own dialectical supersession and thus to ascendency of the bourgeois class. The city, in other words, is the veritable motor of the socio-spatial dialectic that leads to the rise of modern capitalism.

Chapter 3 focuses primarily on the Grundrisse, unpacking the very dense discussion of the pre-history of forms of production that Marx proposes there. Lefebvre continues to frame the city as a decisive locus for class struggle, and hence as the concrete point of anchorage that stages and conditions the possibility of social transformations in history. He also makes a number of methodological assertions that clarify his interpretation of the status of (material) history.

Therefore, the concrete method will begin with abstractions, but scientific abstractions: abstract general relations, such as the division of labor, value, money. Based on these concepts, whose content consists of relations, thinking will attempt to generate the concrete (and which will achieve this concrete, a product of thought, by defining it, rather than presenting it as a given) (92-93).

In opposition to vulgar Marxism, historical materialism is not simply a question of re-constructing a historical process tout court out of a pre-existing datum. The vulgar Marxist imagines an analytic procedure that immediately articulates an entire genetic sequence culminating in the ideology and corresponding mode of production of the present. Against this immediatism and positivist historicism, Lefebvre claims that material history is first generated by circumscribing the difference between concretely interrelated conditions and the ideology that abstracts from them in order to furnish a purportedly ‘scientific’ account of social reality. By disclosing how ideology obfuscates specific conditions, the revelation of the relations and processes subtending these supposedly immutable ‘laws of nature’ permit a subsequent deduction of preceding historical conditions. The historical materialist is then able to retroactively construct a virtual process—the dialectical trajectory of history’s unfolding—from out of the ideological object under consideration. Methodological contributions such as this one make this text valuable to both the Marxist philosopher as well as the vanguard historian and activist.

Chapter 4 returns once again Engel’s work in The Housing Question and Anti-Duhring. For Engels the housing question is part and parcel of the relationship between town and country. The subordination of country to town, as we have seen, is a product of the bourgeois relations of production. As such, the housing question can only be addressed when we attempt to overcome the antagonism of town and country, moving into a phase of production that Lefebvre identifies with the urban. Chapter 5, as one might expect, rounds off this survey of Marx’s corpus by interrogating the theme of city in Capital. It is interesting to note how the city becomes the site of a layered expansion and augmentation of internal markets. Expanding from within along a virtual axis, the urban milieu continually grows for the purposes of generating more surplus value out of a process of over production that circulates not only commodities, but additionally the means of production among competing capitalists. This situation is the opposite of the colonial situation in which new markets are externally established and supply chains relayed laterally from periphery to center. A discussion of colonialism continues within this final chapter.

Despite his interdisciplinary adroitness, I would contend that Lefebvre’s treatment of the colonialism leaves much to be desired, especially in regards to relatively recent strides made in decolonial theory. It is indispensable, in this regard, that any project attempting to integrate spatial thinking into Marxist theory properly address the question of colonialism. Indeed colonial and neo-colonial imperialism can be rightly understood through the geographical concepts of uneven development and accumulation through dispossession. Lefebvre, for his part, describes a process that he calls ‘neo-colonialism’. Yet this term appears improperly employed given that it indexes the internal expansion of markets at the center after their retreat from a previous investment in periphery. The term ‘neo-colonial imperialism,’ following theorists such as Amilcar Cabral, is correctly defined as the persistence of economic modes exploitation in societies formerly under the yoke of traditional settler colonialism or direct military occupation. Neo-colonialism is, in short, indirect exploitation and as such requires a more nuanced account of the spatial structure that mediates the extraction of surplus value from the colonies than the one provided by the rather simplistic periphery/center distinction employed here.  

In conclusion, this dense volume hosts a multiplicity of conceptual strands whose implications cannot be fully accommodated in the short space of this review. This volume would be useful both to those who labor in the Marxist tradition as well as to those generally interested in what Edward Soja calls the ‘spatial turn’ in critical social theory. Lefebvre succeeds, moreover, in convincing the reader of the importance of integrating a consideration of spatiality into Marxist theory by demonstrating how it was always a crucial component of materialist analysis for both Marx and Engels. Marxist Thought and the City indeed points the way forward for the burgeoning fields of spatialized Marxism and radical geography in which much work still remains to be done in face of the pressing contradictions of our environment and contemporary political situation.  

12 May 2017

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