Where to start with reading Henri Lefebvre?

This comes in response to a question to me on Twitter. Where should you start with Henri Lefebvre?

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I think many people, especially in Geography, go to The Production of Space. That’s a major work, certainly, but I don’t think it’s a good place to start. It’s a difficult book, which was Lefebvre’s writing up – the theoretical culmination – of several years working on urban and, earlier, rural questions. All-too-often it is read through the lens of the first chapter – a broad, conceptual schema – and not balanced by the much more historical study found in later chapters. I’ve heard several people say that this was the first, and last, thing of Lefebvre they read, or started to read. Any serious engagement with Lefebvre has to come to terms with this book, but it’s not a good place to start.

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The Critique of Everyday Life is another way in. The books of that series – three volumes from 1947 to 1982, and his last book Elements of Rhythmanalysis, which he saw as an informal fourth volume – are of their time, and are perhaps less radical and challenging today than they were then. The three volumes have been reissued in a single book by Verso. I think Everyday Life in the Modern World is the best single place to go for this aspect of his work – it’s been in English for a long time, and has been reissued by Bloomsbury and is now in their Revelations series too.

I mentioned the urban work above, and Writings on Cities (which includes the French book La droit à la ville as The Right to the City and various other pieces) and The Urban Revolution are good places to start. At the very least, read them before you read The Production of Space. Towards an Architecture of Enjoyment is an important recent addition, which acts as a bridge between the urban work and The Production of Space. You can read the introduction here. His most theoretical urban book Marxist Thought and the City came out with University of Minnesota Press in late 2016.

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If the relation between space and politics is of interest, the State, Space, World collection shows that after The Production of Space Lefebvre continued to think about these questions, but with a larger remit than the city. It gives a sample of the work in Lefebvre’s largely untranslated masterwork, De l’Etat (long out of print). In that register, The Survival of Capitalism (out of print) and The Explosion: Marxism and the French Upheaval (on May 1968) also show his political economic analysis in practice. They really should be read together – the French version of the The Survival of Capitalism reprinted parts of The Explosion, which are excised from the English translation, but without them the book loses some of its bite – a comparison is here. There is also Introduction to Modernity, a curious, interesting but uneven collection of pieces, recently reissued in Verso’s Radical Thinkers series.

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Lefebvre was, first and foremost, a Marxist philosopher, and any engagement with his work really needs to come to terms with both parts of that description. Dialectical Materialism is a really important work, but not an easy read, and I’d say the The Sociology of Marx is well-worth a look, probably ahead of most other things. It is out of print, but easily available second-hand. It gives a good sense of the overall trajectory of what Lefebvre was trying to do, which can be described as taking Marxist thought into lesser-known or explored areas. While there is much more on these questions today, Lefebvre wrote pioneering studies of Marxism in relation to everyday life, the city, space, time, aesthetics and so on – The Sociology of Marx gives some sense of what he was doing. His philosophical contributions are much less known in English, but Key Writings (recently reissued in the Revelations series) gives a representative sample of his work in this register, along with an overall take on his work. His crucial book Metaphilosophy was published by Verso in 2016, and this sets his diverse concerns in a wider, theoretical context for Anglophone readers. Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche or the Realm of Shadows was published with Verso in 2020. It’s a major work which summarises his debt to these three crucial thinkers. Both Metaphilosophy and Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche have introductions from me.

The works listed above are those in English translation. Much of Lefebvre remains untranslated. The most recent book to appear in English is On the Rural: Economy, Sociology, Geography (University of Minnesota Press, 2022) which includes nearly all of his short pieces on this theme. One earlier piece is here, and for some comments on the collection, see here.

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Of untranslated works, La fin de l’histoire rebalances his temporal concerns with his better-known understanding of space; and La somme et le reste gives a sense of the trajectory of the first half of his career and life. Parts of both are in Key Writings. There are plenty more important books, though there is quite a bit of repetition, and some works that are very much of their own moment. Several French books are out of print, and many of these extremely difficult to find, but there were a series of new editions in the 2000s, until rights issues put an end to that valuable work.

In terms of the secondary literature, there is much more to chose from now than there was in the past. Andy Merrifield’s Henri Lefebvre: A Critical Introduction gives a good sense of the relation between the man and his work, while Rob Shields’s Lefebvre, Love and Struggle and my Understanding Henri Lefebvre are more directed towards the work in itself. I think it’s fair to say mine is the most comprehensive study, though it still leaves lots under-examined, and its philosophical approach isn’t to everyone’s taste.

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Edward Soja’s Postmodern Geographies and Thirdspace have good discussions of Lefebvre alongside other concerns. There are chapters on Lefebvre in works by Derek Gregory and others, and loads of journal articles. More recently there have been a few books using Lefebvre in relation to other disciplines, though most have a spatial perspective – Sue Middleton’s Henri Lefebvre and Education; Benjamin Fraser’s Henri Lefebvre and the Spanish Urban Experience and Toward an Urban Cultural Studies: Henri Lefebvre and the Humanities; Chris Butler’s Henri Lefebvre: Spatial Politics, Everyday Life and the Right to the City (good on the legal); Łukasz Stanek’s Henri Lefebvre and Space (excellent on architecture and urbanism), and the edited collections Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri LefebvreUnderstanding the City: Henri Lefebvre and Urban StudiesUrban Revolution Now and Organisational Space and Beyond. Nathaniel Coleman’s Lefebvre for Architects has recently been published. If you read French, Rémi Hess, Henri Lefebvre et l’aventure du siècle is indispensable. A 2019 edited collection by Jenny Bauer and Robert Fischer, Perspectives on Henri Lefebvre: Theory, Practices and (Re)Readings is useful.

Two recent books in English are Patrick Rumsby, Henri Lefebvre, Boredom and Everyday Life (Lexington) and Christian Schmid, Henri Lefebvre and the Theory of the Production of Space (Verso).

In November 2022 a short autobiographical sketch was translated by David Fernbach at the Verso blog – “I am not a good Communist” – Henri Lefebvre’s Autobiography from 1957.

Incidentally, there is another Henri Lefebvre, whose book The Missing Pieces was translated in 2014. It’s an interesting book on abandoned, lost, destroyed, forgotten and unfinished works, but it’s not by the same person. A short excerpt is available on the Berfrois website

[updated 14 December 2013, with links to books and some minor additions; 3 April 2014 with links to the one-volume Critique of Everyday Life and the introduction to the architecture book; 21 August 2014 with some minor updating; 28 May 2015 with some news on forthcoming translations; 9 Oct 2015 with updated links for the forthcoming translations, and two more edited collections; 29 February 2016 with a link to Benjamin Fraser’s second book on Lefebvre; one other minor update; and a note on the ‘other’ Henri Lefebvre; 5 July 2016 with a link to the now-published Metaphilosophy; 18 Dec 2016 with a link to the new translation of Marxist Thought and the City and the paperback edition of Sue Middleton’s book; 4 November 2017 with minor updating and a link to the reissue of Key Writings; 8 January 2018 with a link to the comparison of the French and English versions of The Survival of Capitalism; 16 July 2018 with a link to the new collection Organisational Space and Beyond; 22 May 2019 with a link to Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and minor updating; 28 April 2020 – minor updating; 4 February 2022 with a link to On the Rural; 24 October 2022 – links to the recent Rumsby and Schmid books, minor editing]

31 Responses to Where to start with reading Henri Lefebvre?

  1. Pingback: Where to start with reading Henri Lefebvre? | Progressive Geographies

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  5. Caglar says:

    Perhaps as not essential as others, La Pensée marxiste et la ville is a good read to see Lefebvre’s attempt to put ‘urban’ into the centre of relations of production as opposed to classical and contemporary (Castells, Harvey, etc.) Marxist treatment of cities.

  6. stuartelden says:

    Thanks Caglar. Yes, it’s an important book – another one I’ve discussed getting translated into English. Hopefully this will happen in time.

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  21. )______________( says:

    Pardon my hasty reply. Got my Lefebvres mixed up. Please delete these posts.

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  24. Paul Jones says:

    Hi Stuart! Popping in to say hi and send a massive thank you for this wonderful resource and all the rest on the site; so much appreciated! Paul (sociology, Uni of Liverpool)

  25. Pingback: Where to start with reading Henri Lefebvre? – updated | Progressive Geographies

  26. leatherpress says:

    Agreed Stuart, his Sociology of Marx is a good entry point. For an amateur geographer I’d operated under the (mis)apprehension that an entry point were the big works, Production of Space or Metaphilosophy, to get a handle on the broad oeuvre of his thought. Bit of a mistake. Whatever the entry point – on the urban and city, or marxist philosophy, production of space, etc, he’s not readily accessible, as my reading/re-reading of The Right to the City is revealing. Perhaps that has as much to do with what one is reading other than Lefebvre, eg contemporary Japanese fiction. So I decided to go back to first principles: where was I coming from? What threads did I want to explore and follow, and that had to do with lefebvre’s response to what was happening on the streets, housing developments, and febrile urban social spaces in Paris in the late 60’s. That intersected with my interests/concerns over globalising housing struggles. Eg reading what Greek activists/researchers have been reporting on in Athens since 2010 under protracted conditions of austerity and citizen resistance. So that’s become my entry point. Doesn’t make it any easier though. Lefebvre requires multiple re-readings.
    A quick note on publishing and editions. Frankly speaking with all these different editions, spanning decades it’s a bit of a mess. Some are current, most out of print. The Production of Space needs a re-print. The old Basil Blackwell is long out of print. 2nd hand copies are outrageously overpriced. Hint to Verso. Please issue a re-print – an original paperback with flaps. Very French. And open a dedicated ‘Lefebvre’ page. As mentioned previously here, The Right to the City needs it’s own fresh translation, as a separate volume. Again Verso if you’re listening. An original thin paperback with flaps. Thanks, Stuart, a very valuable post on an ongoing project.

  27. stuartelden says:

    Thanks for the reply. I’m surprised that you say The Production of Space is out of print – it is still available at least in the UK from Wiley-Blackwell.
    It isn’t immediately obvious to readers, but the whole of The Right to the City is in Writings on Cities. Perhaps a separate volume would be good, though there is other important material in Writings on Cities which perhaps would then be lost. I don’t recall issues with the translation, but do share any thoughts on that.
    If I did another Lefebvre collection, it would probably be to translate the remaining urban writings – the second-half of Du rural à l’urbain, the untranslated bits of Espace et politique, and some others. I’m still hoping La fin de l’histoire might be translated. But I’m hoping some other people will take on this work – as Łukasz Stanek did with Towards an Architecture of Enjoyment.

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