State, Space, World

I recently did a book review of State, Space, World, a collection of Henri Lefebvre’s work edited by Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden (who blogs at Progressive Geographies).  The review is in Social & Cultural Geography 13(2), edited by my friend Michael Brown.  In the interest of promoting the book, which is great, I will just paste the review below, hoping the copyright militia doesn’t come after me…

Lefebvre, Henri. (2009) State, Space, World: Selected Essays. Edited by N. Brenner and S. Elden. Translated by G. Moore, N. Brenner and S. Elden. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press. 330 pp. $28.50, paperback (ISBN 978-0-8166-5317-1)

Let me say this plainly: this is an excellent book. There two main reasons for this excellence.  The first is the enduring quality and originality of Lefebvre’s work, and the second is the evident abilities of the editors, Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden.  Both are important factors, but let me begin with the editors.  A significant element of the editors’ contribution is the translation of the works, for which they were joined by Gerald Moore.  Lefebvre’s writing is famous for not being well-wrought, at times scattered, elliptical, or even dashed-off.  In this book, the language is far more readable and transparent than it is in other translations, particularly the Writings on Cities book.  In addition, the translators have made very wise choices with difficult terms.  The best example of this is the term autogestion, which they leave untranslated.  As the book makes clear, this word is really a gateway to a complex argument about politics. Its standard translation, “self-management,” is nondescript in English.  Leaving it untranslated signals to the reader to be attentive to the term and to what it means.  Such attentiveness will open the door to new political worlds in Lefebvre.

In addition to the excellent translation, the editors’ introduction is extremely substantive, well-written, and makes an excellent guide to the theoretical contents of the book. Their scholarship is meticulous; this is clearly not a book that was rushed in any way. It is patiently crafted and is the work of serious scholars who care very deeply about the material they are working with.

As the title suggests, the editors have chosen to focus on Lefebvre’s work on the state, space, and world. This also includes quite a bit of Lefebvre’s theoretical work with respect to Marxism and philosophy. Of course with any selection things will be left out, and in this case the book mostly leaves to one side Lefebvre’s work on the critique of everyday life, rural sociology, the urban, history and time, and rhythmanalysis. This is fine of course, there’s no need to cover everything in Lefebvre’s corpus, but it’s worth noting what the book does not provide.

In terms of what is included, I think there are quite a few revelations here. The selections on the state are downright thrilling.  Lefebvre’s more well-known work tends to be abstract and politically oblique.  Here he is entirely direct.  The essays on the state in the first part of the book make clear Lefebvre’s deep commitment to a Leninist vision of the withering away of the state.  In a strident critique of Stalinism and the French Communist Party, he argues that the entire point of the proletariat seizing the state is to create the conditions for the state to wither away.  Of course this is paired with his Marxist conviction that capitalism must also wither away, and so we have in this book a very clear political agenda takes its cue unapologetically (though not uncritically) from The Communist Manifesto.

Very much related to this political agenda is the concept of autogestion.  The term is extraordinarily important for Lefebvre, though it has been subjected to relatively little attention in geography scholarship. It forms the basis of his understanding of politics and his hope for the future.  It also draws him toward an anarchist position, which is articulated with the Marxist-Leninist position on the state and capitalism into an exciting and complex political vision. Lefebvre imagines people reappropriating control over the conditions of their own existence, so that they create a world in which no one is governed by outside authority, a world in which power is no longer alienated from people to institutions like the state or the corporation, but remains with the people themselves. It prefigures Douglas Lummis’ (1997, p. 27) vision of radical democracy: “the people gathered in the public space, with neither the great paternal Leviathan nor the great maternal society standing over them, but only the empty sky­—the people making the power of Leviathan their own again, free to speak, to choose, to act.”  Lefebvre is very clear here: he is offering a vision for radical democracy.  It is easy to imagine how we can connect that larger political vision with Lefebvre’s writings on cities to imagine urban inhabitants reappropriating control over the production of urban space, a vision which helps us to more fully specify, and understand far more radically, the concept of the right to the city.[1]

In addition to this deeply radical and stimulating political vision, the second part of the book explores more familiar, though not unrelated, reflections on space, the politics of space, and planning. These are more “conventional,” in the sense that they echo or prefigure The Production of Space, which makes up the bulk of what geographers have already focused on in Lefebvre’s work.  This second part of the book also includes Lefebvre’s writing on the issue of the worldwide and the planetary, which is drawn from the work of Kostas Axelos. Lefebvre was remarkable in how he saw neoliberal globalization coming in advance of the actual fact.  And in many ways these discussions are a closer look at why he was capable of that prescience.  While I found these chapters less compelling than the relatively more political ones, I am certainly not ready to dismiss the importance of his ideas on the world and the worldwide either.

Overall then, I would say this book is not only required reading for anyone interested in Lefebvre, but it should be the starting point for those who want to engage his work on the state, politics, Marxism, and autogestion. Especially if it is paired with The Urban Revolution, I think this book is a powerful weapon in the struggle against the neoliberal city, and a source of great strength as we build another world.


Lummis, C. (1997) Radical democracy. Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

Ranciere, J. (2009) The emancipated spectator. Translated by G. Elliott. New York, Verso.

[1] Those who find this idea of reappropriation compelling should see Ranciere’s (2009) explicit critique of Guy Debord in The Emancipated Spectator.  Despite the many similarities between Debord’s vision and Lefebvre’s, though, Ranciere never mentions Lefebvre.