How can Henri Lefebvre’s humanist Marxism contribute to the foundations of a critical theory of communication?
Henri Lefebvre (1901–1991) was a French Marxist theorist. He published 72 books (Elden, 2004, p. 4) on topics such as social space, Karl Marx, dialectical materialism, modernity, metaphilosophy, everyday life, structuralism, existentialism, urban politics, state theory, globalization, and social struggles. He held professorships at the universities of Strasbourg (1961–1965) and Paris X-Nanterre (1965–1973), among other positions. Some see him as philosopher, while others regard him as urban theorist, geographer, sociologist, political scientist, or historian. But, there “is only one category he would have accepted—Marxist—and all that this implies; that is, being a philosopher, sociologist, historian and foremost, politically engagé” (Elden & Lebas, 2003, p. xii).
The Production of Space is Lefebvre’s best known and most widely read work. It was first published in French in 1974. He was both a critic of structuralism (especially Louis Althusser’s version) and existentialism (especially Jean-Paul Sartre’s approach). He joined the Parti communiste français (PCF) in 1928. Because of his critique of Stalinism, the PCF excluded him in 1958. Lefebvre can be considered the most important French representative of Marxist humanism. Elden (2004, p. 19) characterizes Lefebvre together with Althusser and Sartre as the 20th century’s central French Marxist and as a “polymath in the range of topics he discussed” (p. 4).
The majority of his works remain untranslated into English (Brenner & Elden, 2009, p. 2), which has certainly limited their reception. The critical theorist Stanley Aronowitz (2015, p. 133) argues that because of Lefebvre’s radical transdisciplinarity and the large influence of Althusserian structuralism that opposes Hegelian Marxism and Marxist humanism, for “decades Marxists, sociologists and others in the social sciences and philosophy ignored him.” Also Lefebvre’s works on globalization and the state have largely been ignored (Brenner & Elden, 2009, p. 2). Lefebvre was much more than a critical theorist of space. This excess of Lefebvre always relates to space, while simultaneously transcending it. This article adds to the discovery of an alternative Lefebvre by asking how his works can contribute to the foundations of a critical theory of communication. It does so by reflecting on the role of communication in The Production of Space and The Critique of Everyday Life. I do not claim that Lefebvre was a communication scholar. But given that he as a humanist Marxist gave attention to human’s social and productive role on society, his theory may be one of the traditions within Marxism that we can take as an interesting starting point for thinking about a Marxist theory of communication.
First I give a brief overview of some aspects of Marxist communication theory and its status today (Section 2). I then present an overview of Lefebvre’s work (Section 3) in order to introduce those interested in communication theory to his main body of works. Third, I discuss Lefebvre’s work situated in the context of critical communication theory (Section 4)