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“I am not a good Communist” – Henri Lefebvre’s Autobiography from 1957

What did it mean to be a Marxist philosopher in the twentieth century? In this 1963 essay, Henri Lefebvre reflects on his life-long commitment to Marxist philosophy and all of the contradictions therein.

Henri Lefebvre31 October 2022

“I am not a good Communist” – Henri Lefebvre’s Autobiography from 1957

Originally published in: Richard Deledalle and Denis Huisman (eds), Les philosophes français d’aujourd’hui par eux-mêmes: autobiographie de la philosophie française contemporaine, CDU (Paris), 1963

A collection of philosophical autobiographies? A set of ‘intellectual’ itineraries? The very indiscretion of the project piqued my interest, and I await its results with curiosity. And yet, when I try to write my own contribution, I struggle to find the right style. I reflect. I sense that this reflection will produce something other than an autobiography. An essay, or a kind of essay. Why not?

I’m offered twelve pages. I’d need eight hundred if not fifteen hundred. I would have to tell a good number of anecdotes, a few love stories (painful and happy, dramatic, and burlesque) and a dozen political tales. As far as I am concerned, philosophical thought cannot be detached from a fairly dense and hellishly complicated web of events. I believe I’ve been involved in most of the great ideological and political struggles of our time: the formation and dissolution of surrealism, the formation and fragmentation of existentialism, the rehabilitation of Hegel, discussions on the essence of Marxist philosophy and the fate of philosophy – liquidation of bourgeois nationalism and formal individualism – today the critique and balance sheet of what is globally called ‘Stalinism’. Now, for me, as a thinking individual, ideas are bound up with men, women, intrigues, loves. One day, if the great historic criminals such as Beria leave us time, I shall say everything: what I have seen, what I have understood, what I have not understood, what I have accepted and why, and what I could not accept.

Meanwhile, I have to write a few pages. Labyrinth man – he is the labyrinth – seeks his Ariadne’s thread.

Did the cunning sage, a bit of a sorcerer, who launched the slogan ‘Know yourself’, know the troubles he was preparing for philosophers? It’s an old business that the simple, the spontaneous, the naïve, who could know themselves so well, do not seek to know themselves and can scarcely think of doing so. But the philosopher? Inasmuch as he tries to have a full life and thought, inasmuch as he is a philosopher, he ends up no longer able to find himself.

I have had since childhood a taste I considered morbid (for which I criticised myself) for pianos a little out of tune, successions of notes with no apparent structure. Hearing Oriental or serial music, I understood something. Poets (particularly the work of my friend Paul Éluard) have taught me that they metamorphose into images those fugitive impressions that I have very often tended to repel as aberrant. Today I seek – in ethics, in aesthetics – to determine the scope of these remarks. For me (and am I alone in this?), rational intellectual discipline, philosophical reflection, combine with an effort to repel a certain giddiness; subsequently (isn’t this my own dialectical movement?) I have had to reintegrate them, recover them, dominate them.

It took me a long time to discover that I had a very definite form of imagination, perhaps common, perhaps singular. I see, I think, and I dream. I dream what I see, endlessly extending it. I live on two planes, whose impossible unity is constantly unmade and recomposed: knowledge and dream, concept, and image. And it’s Schumann who taught me my secret, whether petty or deep I still don’t know, the secret of a rather painful duplication, which can become fertile if it is neither dissociated nor reduced. Eusebius and Florestan, like Sancho and Quixote, and so many others, reflect a living man, single and double, and each reflects the other in their perpetual conflict.

Schumann is my man. I hate Philistines. But, today, Goliath is stronger than ever, and more multiple than ever. And the Philistines have surrounded the companions of David. But where are the latter? I look for them. Then Bach brings my heart peace. If I had been a musician, I would have composed more than once a ‘Sinfonia eroica per festeggiare il sovvenire di un gran uomo’.

As an abrupt conclusion to these initial, brief and very open confessions: the majority of my Marxist friends, including the great György Lukács, have been obsessed by the memory of classicism; but I will write – if I manage it – an aesthetic of discord, of rift, of dépassement, in other words a Romantic aesthetic.

I almost forgot that I was initially, as a philosopher, a logician…

How to summarise a philosopher’s life without introducing an elementary criticism and self-criticism emerging from confidences or semi-confessions, without sketchy confrontations, the attempt at inventory, balance-sheet, and interpretation?

The balance-sheet proves difficult and rather sad. I must admit that I have steadily restricted my philosophical ambitions. And that I probably committed an initial error in adopting a political philosophy without seeking to become a political man, remaining politically marginal (witness, judge). And thus hypercritical. Thus equipped with few means and lacking in power.

What have I managed to write and publish? Essays. Fragments. Because of difficulties, material and other. Because of wars, repressions, publishers (bourgeois or otherwise); because of officially recognised doctrines, and people who had power, and great phenomena named ‘Zhdanovism’, ‘Stalinism’, etc.

I had to wage a struggle on multiple fronts. Fertile in one sense, exhausting because always recommenced.

To continue. I began with scientific studies (preparation for the entrance examination for a grande école, interrupted by illness). Then a major Catholic thinker, Maurice Blondel, at Aix-en-Provence, and later Léon Brunschwig in Paris, were, for me, masters towards whom I soon showed extreme ingratitude: the strictly conformist ‘theory of action’ of the one, and the intellectualism of the other, stifled me by their narrowness.

In an initial dépassement (bound up with the end of a first love affair; apropos of which I shall not say here, for want of space, how many women I have loved, how many children and mistresses I have had), I abandoned, at the same time, both religion and classical rationalism. Then, I imagined a sketch, a first version (premature and incomplete) of existentialism, bound up with the systematic exploration of the ‘other’, not only in the concept but in life, in perception, in imagination and the possible. And the philosophical determination of the ‘other’ led to the theory of alienation, which led me to study Hegel and Marx, to consider philosophy and reflection historically, to link philosophical thought to questions concerning justice, liberty, and truth in social existence. I decided, at that time, to live the proletarian life and work manually. Which I did for a number of months (time lost or not? I still ask myself the question).

This period saw the eruption of the group of young philosophers who spontaneously formed around analogous research themes, including Georges Politzer, Georges Friedmann, Pierre Morhange, Norbert Guterman, and so on. (It also saw the eruption of surrealism.)

When I became a Marxist (and a member of the French Communist Party), nearly thirty years ago, there was a certain predominant idea, both narrow and unexpressed (what is unsaid is generally more stifling than what is said). Marxism, it was thought, was reducible to political economy. This idea, moreover, represented a step forward in relation to the previous period, which had, at least in France, reduced Marxism simply to a political stance, external to science, and dressed up more or less well with philosophical justifications. This latent economism was no less narrow and stifling. (In its name, Georges Politzer abandoned his psychological work and conceived philosophy as merely an introduction to economic science, a kind of propaedeutic.) An underground struggle was necessary to obtain recognition of Marxist philosophy and its concepts as such, to have it recognised that philosophy as such was not brusquely overtaken and liquidated. This struggle continues today.

Once philosophy was more or less readmitted into official Marxism, people set out to simplify and schematise it, to reduce it to a number of dogmatic assertions (a dogmatism that, increasingly conscious and tactical, and understanding the drawbacks and bad reputation of dogmatism, has recently learned to cover itself with outward and violently anti-dogmatic assertions – transforming itself into ‘ultra-dogmatism’). It was thus necessary, and still is, to struggle for recognition of the existence of philosophical problems (for acceptance of the fact that the ‘philosophical problem’ is not a puzzle for particularly complicated intellects, a gratuitous enigma long since resolved by men of practical action and manual labour).

What a frightful waste of time and effort! Before history, this era will perhaps appear as tormented by grandiose passions and ambitions followed by commensurate failures – as the most terrible waste of men, treasure, ideas, in an extraordinary condensation of historical becoming.

It was not until 1947 that I was able to publish a study on the categories of formal logic and dialectical logic, produced (basically at a pedagogical level) from notes accumulated over twenty years. This was the first volume in an announced series, which was to explore the entirety of philosophical problems. The second volume, devoted to methodology (and particularly the mathematical method), was to appear in 1949; it had already been typeset, and the proofs corrected. But it did not appear. In the meantime, the conjuncture had changed; we were now in the period of Cold War, and ‘Zhdanovism’, which brutally transposed the political situation into the language of ideology on the cultural front, was ravaging. ‘Proletarian science’ was opposed to ‘bourgeois science’. I was criticised for not seeking a new logic (proletarian, socialist) and taking up the old logic bound up with metaphysics and the superstructures of dead societies. What was wanted was works of struggle, useful for militants, marking an absolute break between the new and the old, Marxism and what had preceded it, the socialist camp and that of capitalism, etc.

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Subsequent rectifications made to this imbecile attitude theorised by palaeo-Marxists (such as Jean Kanapa, whose name will remain the symbol and common name of this species) failed to prevent the brutal result. My philosophical work – as a logician – had been interrupted and broken. I have never been able to resume it.

Another story. In 1946, I published a volume titled Critique de la vie quotidienne, organised around the notion of alienation considered as concrete, practical and living, because experienced.

This book met with a chilly reception. On the academic side, it seems that the dislike focused on this way of applying to reality an obscure and profound philosophical notion, however respectable on the speculative level. On the Marxist side, I was supposed to have said that the proletariat, as the dominant class directing the nation, no longer fell under the category of alienation. (The same ‘Marxists’, a few years later, had to launch themselves head down into the theory of pauperisation – as if there could be pauperisation without alienation, and vice versa! Which implies that I accept pauperisation, though not in the way it has been imposed without serious proofs. In the form that has been given to it, the thesis is neither true nor false.) It was also objected, without indulgence, that Soviet philosophers rejected the notion of alienation as a philosophical concept, despite its origin in Hegel, Feuerbach, and the works of the young Marx. How could there be economic, social, political, ideological alienation of man in socialist society?

Since then, a great dispute has been brewing around the concept of alienation, its place, its truth and its value, its role in the formation of Marxism and its actual significance. This latent dispute has still not exploded, the discussion is still not explicit. Among neither Marxists nor ‘others’. I ardently wish that it would explode. And that is why I have not yet published the second volume of my Critique de la vie quotidienne.

In a cupboard, at the back of an old provincial house, I still keep dozens of notebooks on the history of individuality. Triple history: concept and representations, literary and other documents bearing on real life, and real life with its economic basis and forms of social relations. The title: La conscience privée. Nothing has appeared, apart from a few articles in a now forgotten weekly (Parallèle 50).

Why? Discouragement, lassitude, I admit. Uncertainty in the face of the enormity of the task and the dispersed notes, the material in its raw state (this work was done between 1936 and 1939). Uncertainty with the respect to the aim and efficacy of the result.

And that is how I find myself today, a Marxist philosopher, a philosopher nonconformist in every way, a revolutionary philosopher (at least I claim to be), faced with the bitter fact that instead of a body of work I have discontinuous and interrupted essays. Fragments.

I must add, right away, that I am to blame in this. I am not entirely convinced (and this goes together with a profound crisis in philosophy) that philosophical expression is alive today. I defend philosophy without hiding from myself that poetry, or theatre, or the novel, have more effects. Without, of course, counting action. (And, yet, I have experienced, in untold ways, the brutal side of so-called men of action, and their distrust of philosophy and philosophers, inevitably and by nature hypercritical, and thus undisciplined.)

The philosopher can no longer remain isolated or isolate his research. But then the field of his investigations risks extending indefinitely. And fragmenting. Or disappearing.

This is where a very individual element introduced itself into my work as a philosopher. It happened that I was born from an encounter between a rather rootless Voltairean government official and a Pyrenean mother who was Catholic to the point of fanaticism or Jansenism. Hence, an initial conflict. It took me a great deal of time, because I rebelled against her faith, to understand what I owed to my mother’s home region, the Pyrenean stubbornness and toughness, the secret exaltation and sardonic humour of this region, its inflexible tradition of independence that made it the birthplace of so many heresies, as well as of an orthodox fanaticism. Then I wanted to erect a monument to the glory of this homeland. Instead of writing a philosophy thesis on a philosophical problem, I wrote a history of the Pyrenean peasantry. An aberrant project for a philosopher: the work of a historian, a geographer, a sociologist. A difficult task, at the intersection of several ‘specialisms’. I sought to extend this research to its wider implications: the historical and social conditions of heresies in peasant communities and their offspring, the contribution to civilisation of the direct contact between man and land, the direct relationship between people in archaic communities and their extensions. On top of everything, in three-quarters of the globe the agrarian question is still fundamental; it’s everywhere a stumbling block for Marxism and the political regimes inspired by it.

This investigation led me to study Rabelais and Pascal, as well as the theory of rent and the agrarian question in China and Yugoslavia. No need to say that the link between these monographs escaped my best friends, as well as the ‘reason’ for these initiatives. In this sense, even the sketch of an autobiography is a godsend for me.

And, so, I arrive step by step, by analysis more than narrative (which would need so many pages!), at a fundamental contradiction. This is not personal, even if it is true that I bear it in extreme form. In this sense, it has a broader interest than that of an individual biographical account.

I am fundamentally an individualist, tending towards anarchism (and thus a heretic, an aberrant, a wanderer, a ‘spiritual’ outlaw). I am fundamentally an irreducible oppositionist. I declare myself fundamentally against what exists, whatever it may be (still more so, and it goes without saying, against the most oppressive dead existence, bourgeois order and disorder; but equally, against any other ‘existence’, for example the military discipline that was imposed among the Communists in the name of Stalin’s interpretation of Marxism). I never wanted to visit the USSR, so as not to return upset, if not worse. So I am against constraint, external authority, power. I have a visceral hatred of power, I don’t like people who have power. And when I hear people speaking of the state, I grit my teeth. I hate raison d’état, the official lie.

I know this, I recognise it, I accept it and I proclaim it; I fully assume it, as is said in a certain language.

But I do so together with the other pole of the contradiction, this second pole being (I stress) just as fundamental, as essential, as the first: the need for rigour, universality, discipline, and organisation. And efficacy. The need to be and act for something possible, living, realisable and real. And, so, I have lived in this contradiction, as a violently repressed romantic, a free man sometimes trampling his freedom underfoot. And this was not a ‘double consciousness’, but far more: a life both double and single – the worst. That of the philosopher in so-called modern times.

We know the habitual explanation of the paleo-Marxists (in their hands, Marxism went beyond the limits of vulgarity): petty-bourgeois intellectual, speculative philosopher, metaphysician, ideological survivals, etc.

And yes, that explanation is true. It is simply limited, crude, summary, in a word superficial. It eludes an analysis that would restore meaning and value to the traditional demands of thought. And would maintain that this contradiction was also and precisely that of the founders and classics of Marxism.

If the individualism of the intellectual – the writer, the philosopher – has causes and reasons in the past, it has also its reasons in the future. It has roots in the future (a metaphor I happily employ). The claim of individuality, the right to individuality and its development without limits are fundamental. They underlie other claims, and are to be found at both the starting-point and the destination of Marxism, the alpha and the omega – both as problem and as theoretically resolved contradiction, it goes without saying. If the trade-union militant has no need for it, and the political militant cares to ignore it, the philosophical militant must remember it clearly and distinctly. For a certain period (specifically, that of capitalism in the age of free competition), the individual took the concrete and ideological form of individualism, of the private consciousness opposed to the public consciousness. That in no way prevented man from being a (social) individual; the problem being to unite the individual with the universal and resolve a series of contradictions in order to make society serve the individual and not the individual (directly or indirectly, in authoritarian or liberal fashion) serve society. There is no definition of communism without this absolute demand, forgotten by those who transformed Marxism into a state philosophy and ideology. This demand expresses, at the same time as temporary and out-dated excrescences, a profound and essential requirement. Reason, thought, the work of art or philosophy, are and will always be individual things (or rather, non-things). Even if their content or material comes from history, the people, the masses. Even and especially when the too famous ‘cult of personality’ consecrated and sealed in state socialism the partial or total elimination of individuality, and in any case the abandonment of the fundamental demand as such. For the cult of personality is radically incompatible with the culture of the universal individual. The impersonality of thought is the most stubborn illusion of vulgar Marxism and its dogmatism (still more illusory in attributing the privilege of thought to the superior ‘personality’ or the fetishised political community). This means that, for vulgar Marxism and its dogmatism or ultra-dogmatism, thought has come to the end of its critical and creative role, to become a kind of organ of collective application of an essentially finished system.

The sense, the taste of the individual, have their deep foundation both in Marxist theory and in French tradition, and in the inalienable diversities within this theory and this tradition. And in our own time, also in its deep needs for clarity and expression.

I combatted surrealism as a doctrine, a philosophy or pseudo-philosophy (with a pseudo-dialectic of reality and dream, sensation and image). I recognise that, in historical and aesthetic terms, it had a meaning (just as did the ‘Dadaism’ of my friend Tristan Tzara). These tendencies even marked those who rejected them as doctrine, as they expressed certain aspirations of an era.

Surrealism, as a doctrine, was a ritualised and codified form of alienation: alienation by way of the thing-image, accompanied by a well-managed restitution of magic, occultism, and other fairly commonplace fantasies, curiously raised to the rank of poetry. So, I have never been a ‘surrealist’, and am not one now. But I come from the era and the exigencies that led to the eruption of surrealism. Those who did not experience this period (and its critique) seem to me today as lacking a certain experience. A lack that deprives and lessens them, even if they have other experiences that are just as valuable (such as, for example, the difficulties and contradictions of realism). Dadaism, surrealism, exaggerated (and untenable) romanticism, all expressed contempt for the platitude and prose of the world, hatred of both flat unhappiness and flat pleasure. Also, the taste and the sense of the marvellous, the astonishing, i.e. the exceptional moment (certainly not successful or perfect, but full or total…). It was also the impossibility of renouncing subjective élan and enthusiasm, the taste of freedom. And the implicit hypothesis that only the most extreme and excessive image makes it possible to grasp in its contradictory depth the real in both man and world. A hypothesis shared equally by Picasso and Éluard, and more by them and by Tzara than by André Breton.

In this sense, I cannot fail to remain a revolutionary romantic.

There are those among my best friends (such as Roger Vailland or Claude Roy, not Aragon) who, though I believe they struggle against themselves, maintain a taste for classicism that I have difficulty accepting, finding abstract and reducible to a vague ambition, that of agreeing with the world and external conditions (disagreements being projected beyond or beneath the present, which in my view defines the possibility of any classicism).

I feel more deeply in tune with Brecht than with any other living writer. (If not perhaps Sholokhov; and Roger Martin du Gard, whom I have never known personally but whom I see as the greatest contemporary French writer, because of his virtue of rigorous honesty.)

I understand the imprecations of certain ‘adversaries’ and certain ‘friends’: ‘How, with this attitude, can you claim to be a Communist, and for nearly thirty years a member of the French Communist Party, an active, rank-and-file militant? This is a strange misunderstanding, if nothing more. You must have suffered a good deal, or else hidden yourself.’ That is what some will say or think. And others: ‘But you’re crazy! You’re neither a Communist nor a Marxist. You are simply a bad member of the Party. You have never understood anything. You’re deceiving the Party. You want to subtract half of your consciousness and life from the Party’s control and discipline. Today, in the guise of an autobiography, you’ve unmasked yourself, you are putting yourself outside of the Party, as you already were, you’ve never been…’

My response is that, as I see it, there is neither misunderstanding nor duplicity. And that those who speak in this way have never understood anything of living and experienced contradictions (in other words, dialectics).

The first thing to agree on is the exact meaning of these words: ‘being a Marxist, being a Communist’.

If what is meant by these words is a kind of quality or essence that would right away make a Communist a different man, different from the men of today, escaping their contradictions – and already contemporary with the future, already a man of Communist society – I confess that I am not a good Communist. (Will potential readers and commentators please not take this phrase in isolation or cite it out of context.) I will go further. I believe that this pretension has created a species of impossible, unacceptable people, who wield historical truths and their fallacious self-description as new men with an unbelievable arrogance. I will say along with Brecht: ‘unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.’

I am of my time, as fully and as painfully as possible, and sometimes as humbly as possible. I ‘assume’ all its contradictions, to the full. I believe it is wrong to want to leap over one or several historical periods, and pretend to be already ‘Communist men’. That means nothing. More exactly, this pretence of exceptional quality transforms itself into its contrary: discipline into spinelessness, liberty into dogmatism, devotion into frenzied ambition. I believe this is (along with its immanent punishment) a form of idealism in the Marxist sense of the word: a superfetation, a parasitic excrescence on the tree of life. In a word, sectarianism (the ideology of a sect).

If what is meant by ‘being Communist’ is unconditional loyalty to one or various men (yesterday Stalin), or to a country (yesterday or today Soviet Russia), or to a class (the French proletariat), or to a nationality (France), or to a political institution (today the Party, tomorrow the state issuing from revolutionary transformation), I reply: no, I am not a good Communist. As I will never accept anything absolute, anything unconditioned. Truth alone has an ‘unconditional’ and absolute right, and is itself always relative at the same time as absolute. Never will I renounce my critical freedom, a freedom that is moreover conditional and limited by the acceptance of disciplines and decisions taken with a view to action. Never will I abandon the unity of this multiple and contradictory aspect – my philosophical conscience.

On the contrary, if by the words ‘being Marxist, being Communist’ we mean the fact of starting from a scientific (materialist and dialectical) analysis of social development to envisage the advent of a classless society based on abundance, on the endless proliferation of needs and their satisfactions, and consequently on collective ownership and the social utilisation of the means of production, so that the words ‘justice’, ‘right’ and ‘democracy’ in the end lose their meaning – if we mean by that the idea that already today one can know and appreciate the present and the class struggle from the point of view of this future, in order to orient it towards that future with the maximum economy as far as lives, wealth, and the achievements of civilisation are concerned – then I proclaim loud and clear that I am a very good Communist. And in no way idealist. On the contrary.

The Party is then the free association of those who overtly, openly, freely, and clearly take a position in this sense, in all problems, who adopt on every contemporary question the solution oriented in this direction, and who therefore accept a certain rational discipline. A definition that is both precise and broad. It does not assert that the Communist Party as such is the only social force heading towards socialism, nor even the only revolutionary political force, but that it is the only coherent revolutionary force, capable of following through to the end the transformation of the world.

I believe I need to recall here the breadth of vision with which Marx, Engels and Lenin understood history. For them, the worst anarchists were not inherently and absolutely wrong to hate constraint, authority, politics and the state. But they were wrong to want to leap, with no trace of irony or humour, across a historical period in which constraint, discipline, and restrictions painful to freedom, were more justified in imposing themselves than was the exercise of individual freedom. A period in which a practical discipline, even a state in certain concrete historical conditions, were indispensable, by sad necessity. This I fully acknowledge. But it is reason and knowledge that decide.

The theory now accepted, according to which ‘Party spirit’ and Party discipline are the basis of knowledge and action (rather than vice versa) appears to me as false, crazy, and monstrous, leading to real monstrosities. As, likewise, the theory, equally current though less clearly expressed, according to which the Party – and its operation – are above contradictions. An anti-Marxist theory, because anti-dialectical. A metaphysical and mystical theory, an exasperated form of political alienation. Against these positions, designed rapidly to perish, I have defended and continue to defend Marxism-Leninism, in other words, the deepening objectivity of knowledge, revolutionary truth, dialectics.

The idea that the Party and political action resolve historical and social contradictions in practice is confused with a very different proposition, according to which they inherently escape contradictions. The Khrushchev report has come at a good time to refute this thesis of formal logic extended to a meta-politics.

I maintain that if the political party is placed above society, as well as the masses and its own members, as an entity absolved from any internal contradiction – thus along the lines of the absolute state, omitting the fundamental Marxist critique of the political state and politics – this leads inevitably to placing one man or a number of men, an apparatus and finally a police, above the party.

This was the meaning or one of the meanings of Stalinism, precisely how Stalin departed from Marxist-Leninism.

In sum, I maintain loud and clear that I am a good Communist. And a Marxist. Even if this brief autobiography were to be used one day as evidence in a future trial, or as cement in amalgam.

And now I want to answer a question that has often been put to me, namely: ‘Do you as a Marxist philosopher, despite the discontinuous and fragmentary character of your work, have a philosophical idea that you claim and recognise as your own? Or have you simply followed the ideas of Marx and Lenin?’

Yes, there are at least two ideas that I stand by. Although I have only managed to give them a rhapsodic and disjointed form. I am not going to speak of the notion of alienation, which I believe I have only taken over, updated, and restored to life. In the same way, I believe I have only (and insufficiently) taken up and made coherent the exposition of the relations between formal logic and dialectical logic, with the transitions from one to the other and the discontinuity or discontinuities, dialectical contradiction being profoundly different from logical contradiction. Besides, there would still be a great deal to investigate and to say on these important points.

The first idea that I claim is a critical idea. This is found in germ, but not explicitly, in the classics of Marxism. It is the general thesis according to which forms in bourgeois society are historically and theoretically detached from their contents, to the point of being fetishised externally to these and opposed to them. These forms are then presented, in the mouths or pens of ideologists, in place of the contents, stifling and destroying the contents, then mutually destroying one another. This gives a guiding thread to elucidate a series of contradictions:

  1. Rationalism (the old rationalism, that of Alain for example) against reason.
  2. Nationalism (that of ‘the right’) against nations.
  3. Individualism (that of bourgeois practice, and of philosophy through to and including existentialism) against the individual.
  4. Aestheticism (art for art’s sake) against art, and formalism against the living form.
  5. Objectivism against deeper objectivity.

I could continue this list, and add for example ‘dialectism’ (a pseudo-dialectic much in fashion today, abstract, and subjective) against true dialectics, etc.

I repeat that this is a critical idea, enabling the elucidation of certain internal contradictions of historical and social reality in which we have to live and find our way through life.

Secondly, I claim the philosophical elaboration of a positive idea, that of total man. A notion that is hard to deploy and easy to misunderstand, even to caricature. Aspects and elements of it were discovered well before Marx and Marxism, among the great philosophers (who all used the philosophical category of totality), and writers such as Goethe, Balzac, Stendhal. In the works of the young Marx, and subsequently, this notion re-emerged to resolve essential problems that arise historically, theoretically, and practically, each in its time – problems of the division of labour, the relationship in culture between work and leisure, etc. It is therefore a question of correctly determining the relationship between the human and the totality.

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Man and the human have always been a totality, but a totality in becoming, in motion, in formation yet riven, in development but alienated. In the course of his development, man has dominated nature (and his own nature); he has transformed it, but by increasingly inserting himself in the world (nature), very far from tearing himself away from it by virtue of his knowledge and his power.

The notion of total man is thus situated at exactly the level of the notion of the absolute. If we eliminate the absolute, we fall into a pure relativism. And then the relative loses all meaning, all orientation in its becoming. The absolute, dialectically, exists in the relative. And, yet, it should not be confused with it. Being already in the relative (in attained knowledge), it is also its infinite limit, its orientation, its meaning.

In the same way, total man exists in achieved man, and is also his meaning, his orientation, his infinite limit impossible to reach.

Totality is thus, at the same time, nature and humanity: human nature in a dialectical sense, in other words humanised nature, the power of man over nature, which realises man in the midst of nature.

Any humanist contention or approach has no meaning unless it implies this notion. If this is lacking, it loses meaning, orientation, and direction.

Concepts and images reflect (in both senses, and in two aspects constituting a whole) this double process by which man emerges from nature and yet plunges deeper into it, becoming ‘all nature’.

After writing these formulae, whose obscure because overly condensed character I fully acknowledge, I shall stop again to reflect.

Right away, with a certain bitterness, I considered a route that is already long, scattered with dispersed fragments, debris emitted from failures.

Now it seems to me – with hope – that I have still said nothing, that I have everything to say. I am only beginning. This sketch of a life does not end on the confession of a defeat (which some people would take as proof of authenticity). For example, I have everything to say on the theory of the image and the imagination, connected with what I have maintained above; also on aesthetics and on ethics.

I am beginning. But it is necessary, first of all, to illuminate a preliminary question: what is philosophy? What is the role and function of the philosopher? What can he do? What should he do?

If we accept the proposition of the withering away of philosophy, of its mortal crisis, its end (a proposition supported by some Marxists, in favour of the class struggle, and by certain opponents of Marxism, such as Heidegger, in favour of poetry, for example), then it is useless to continue.

I have long defined philosophy, for my own use, as reflection on universal categories, their history and their theoretical elaboration, their connections, their spheres.

Today I discover that this definition is no longer sufficient. It still reduces the reflection of the philosopher, his sphere, and therefore his influence and his responsibility, to dialectical logic. It is necessary to go further and set the philosopher – and philosophy – tasks, perspectives, and responsibilities in the fields of ethics, aesthetics, and social relations. There are ‘categories’ here not only to be elaborated but to be discovered. The implacable struggle, without compromise, against all alienation, all forms of alienation, is for me today the highest and most coherent formulation defining the requirements of Marxist philosophy.

One final word. I do not present myself as a man without sin. I am not a hero (and I do not like heroes, especially when they survive). And, yet, on close examination, if my honour as a philosopher is not without stain (let the stainless cast the first stone), if I have sometimes retreated or weakened, I do not believe I have failed.

‘A dog would not want this life,’ said Faust. I would not want any other.

January 1957

Henri Lefebvre

Born at Hagetmau (Landes), 16 June 1905. Intended by his family for the École Polytechnique, he successively became a taxi driver, a worker at Citroën, and a teacher in provincial lycées. Dismissed under Vichy, he went underground. Subsequently artistic director at Radiodiffusion Française. Currently maître de recherches at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

Translated by David Fernbach

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