Lefebvre the Historian

From Internationale Situationniste #10 (March 1966).

Submitted by Fozzie on March 1, 2023

It is well known that by hastily copying fourteen situationist theses, Henri Lefebvre purported to offer a new interpretation of the Paris Commune (see the SI's tract, Into the Trashcan of History from February 1963). His book La Proclamation de la Commune, in which he admires our important conclusions from the end of 1962, was finally published by Gallimard in 1965, leaving a number of points to be made on this largely rethought work, now totally accessible, as well as on the positive reception that it has generally encountered.

The situationist formula "the Commune was the greatest festival of the 19th Century," was adapted as the central idea of this "investigation" into a "total history" (but, of course, without the slightest awareness of the theoretical renewal whose foundations it laid); and was immediately celebrated by 75% of the critics. ". . . what Henri Lefebvre's book calls a 'festival.' Indeed, everything that occurred in the days and nights of the Commune was a festival." (Duvignard, Nouvel Observateur, 22-4-65). "The March 1871 insurrection was first of all a festival . . ." (C. Mettra, L'Express 5-4-65). "With this work, Henri Lefebvre can't be ignored. The Paris Commune was 'an immense, grandiose festival,' 'a revolutionary festival and a festival of revolution.' That's the general tone." (A. Duhamel, Le Monde, 6-9-65). "When Henri Lefebvre, immediately emphasizing the importance of style in great historical events, has reason to describe the style of the Paris Commune, it is as a festival." (J.Julliard, Critique, December 1965). And Michel Winock, in the February 1966 edition of Esprit: "Aside from 'the end of state politics,' what did the Commune offer us? What was its deepest significance? The greatest imaginable: 'the transformation of (everyday) life into an endless festival, into a game whose only limit is the fatality of death. . . .' Lefebvre does not give in to utopian literature: with his attention to the detail of the day to day facts of Paris in 1871 — often seen as less 'historical' — he concludes that the 'festive style' is 'the style proper to the Commune.' The phrase is not forced . . . This leads Lefebvre to see in the Commune 'the only attempt at revolutionary urbanism' . . . From now on, it will be impossible to speak of the Commune without being familiar with Henri Lefebvre's ideas."

There is no reason to believe that Lefebvre's pillaging is confined to yet-to-be-published texts. The following lines come from issue 7 of the journal Internationale Situationniste (page 12 1 ), which appeared in April 1962: "The assault of the first workers movement against the whole organization of the old world came to an end long ago, and nothing can bring it back to life. It failed. Certainly it achieved immense results, but not the ones it had originally intended. No doubt such deviation toward partially unexpected results is the general rule in human actions; but the one exception to this rule is precisely the moment of revolutionary action, the moment of the all-or-nothing qualitative leap. The classical workers movement must be reexamined without any illusions, particularly without any illusions regarding its various political and pseudotheoretical heirs, for all they have inherited is its failure. The apparent successes of this movement are actually its fundamental failures (reformism or the establishment of a state bureaucracy), while its failures (the Paris Commune or the 1934 Asturian revolt) are its most promising successes so far, for us and for the future." This is what became of that paragraph three years later, when it was transfigured by Lefebvrian thought: "Today, we must resume the workers' movement in an entirely new way: at once disillusioned and audacious. Limited to Europe, this movement's first assault against the old world partially failed. The situation has changed dramatically; it has achieved immense results, but not the ones intended by those who undertook its initial theories and actions. Some of the Commune's political and theoretical pseudoheirs hold only the heritage of a failure, whose meaning has been lost precisely because of their belief in its success. Is there not a dialectical movement of history and defeat, of failure and success? The success of the revolutionary movement has in fact concealed its failures; in contrast, its failures — that of the Commune, among others — are at the same time victories that open onto the future . . ." (page 39 of La Proclamation de la Commune).

But, you ask, is it possible for Lefebvre write such an awful book simply by adapting three 'situationist' pages? Of course not. He has read four or five well-timed books in the past few years that he has been capable of tirelessly but unevenly amalgamating into several investigations concerning the unfolding of events (for example, Dautry and Scheller's study, Le Comité Central des Vingt Arondissements de Paris, Editions Sociales, 1960). Finally, no doubt to the delight of his last master Gurvitch, who is still alive, Lefebvre fraudulently and with no apology credited Proudhon with being something like the inventor of the autonomous worker! This is the Proudhon, ever the partisan of order, who wanted to improve the existing order, in the sector of private property (through cooperation) as everywhere else; the apolitical enemy of all violent struggle; the reactionary who, in the middle of the 19th century, neither considered nor tolerated any choice for women other than that between prostitution and motherhood; the man who perfectly summed up every uselessness of the moralist when he decided, precisely against the existing minimum of worker autonomy, that "There is no more right to strike than there is to incest and adultery."

But that's not all. From the very beginning of his book, Lefebvre demonstrates what poor ideas he can make out of festival and revolution. He searches unimaginatively for how literary forms expressed in Paris at the time — lyricism and drama — must, by hypothesis, be rediscovered. He thereby reveals that he has absolutely no understanding of the liberated life that transcends these forms, autonomizing itself as expression and action, to the point of possessing in itself lyricism and drama of an entirely different quality to this resurrection of the artistic masks of the old carnival of separation. Having quite simply misunderstood — at the level of doorman's gossip — our theses' suggestion that the official history of dominant society "brings about the disappearance" of the subversive sense of an era, even in the field of its artistic and poetic manifestations, Lefebvre believes that he can venture to insinuate that Lautréamont was murdered! (page 169). Like the famous Fantômas — where each chapter was written by a different author — Lefebvre's historical monument is composed with the same hypnogogic negligence, a cloak and dagger novel culminating in the stupefying idea that Marx visited the Commune in order to be a purely theoretical partisan of the destruction of the state.

Lefebvre has attempted to exorcise the situationist specter haunting his thought — as well as that of quite a few other small minds of present spectacular culture — by directing an acknowledgment to a mysterious Guy Debud, who would certainly be the type associated with the elaboration and approval of such a book but for his unfortunately chimerical form. Typographically — for want of better means — a prouder correction of historical exactness has not been seen since Stalinaud, who the ever faithful Henri Lelièvre loved so hopelessly for thirty years (or at least preferred to Garaudisque). Vaccinated against ridicule like no-one else in Paris, The Thinker of Nanterre has once again mastered a delicate subject with the handling of his dialoctical brilliance.2

Translated by Reuben Keehan. From https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/lefebvre.html

  • 1The Bad Days Will End
  • 2All typographical errors in this paragraph are intentional and appear in the original text. "Henri Lelièvre" is literally "Henri the hare" — trans.