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Towards a Heuristic Method: Sartre and Lefebvre

Author(s): Michael Kelly
Source: Sartre Studies International, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1999), pp. 1-15
Published by: Berghahn Books
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Towards a Heuristic Method:
Sartre and Lefebvre

Michael Kelly

This text is so clear and so rich that we have nothing to add, except that
this method, with its phase of phenomenological description and its dou
ble movement of progression and then regression, seems to us to be valid
- with such modifications as its objects - in all domains
may require of
anthropology. Moreover, it is the method which we shall be applying, as
will be seen later, to meanings, to individuals themselves, and to concrete
relations between individuals. It is the only one which can be heuristic,
and the only one which can highlight the originality of a feet as well as
enabling comparisons to be made. It is a pity that Lcfcbvrc has not found

any imitators among the other Marxist intellectuals.1

Henri Lefebvre rarely looms large in discussions of Sartre, and vice

versa. With the notable exception of Mark Poster,2 critics have generally
ignored the role of France's leading Marxist philosopher in mediating
Sartre's encounter with Marxism. As a result, Sartre's well-known foot
note in the Critique de la raison dialectique, quoted above, may appear
as a characteristically quixotic gesture on his part. The purpose of this
article is to argue that this relatively isolated acknowledgement is the tip
of an iceberg, beneath which there lies a deep and complex philosophi
cal and political relationship. The text was published in 1957 at a
moment when Sartre and Lefebvre came to share an unusual degree of
common ground. This itself requires detailed examination, but it first
needs to be situated in a wider context embracing most of the lifetime
of the two thinkers up until that point.
They were near-contemporaries, with Lefebvre the elder by
almost exactly four years.2 They were both too young to serve in the

First World War, Lefebvre being in the 'promotion' of 1919, the first
age cohort to miss active service. This has often been seen as the
major dividing line between generations in France,4 and the two
young men were of the same generation, sharing a broadly common
cultural environment. They did not precisely coincide during their

- I -
Sartre Studies International, Volume 5, Issue 1, 1999

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Michael Kelly

studies, though both spent a period in the leading Parisian lycée

Louis-le-Grand. Lefebvre studied there for his baccalauréat during
the War, before taking a philosophy degree in Aix-en-Provence and
then returning to study at the Sorbonne. Sartre took his preparatory
classes there in the early twenties after studies at the lycée Henri IV,
and before going on to the Ecole normale supérieure. Both spent
most of the 1930s in posts at a series of provincial lycées,where they
both taught philosophy.5
Beyond these similarities, there were many differences, not only of
personal biography and cultural clan, but also of intellectual affilia
tion. Whereas Sartre came to philosophy through Henri Bergson and
his Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience, Lefebvre came to
it through Maurice Blondel and his L'Action. The emphasis respec
tively on consciousness and action in their subsequent works is one of
the enduring differences between them even at the moment of their
closest convergence. Lefebvre belonged to the anti-Bergsonians, like
Politzer and Nizan, and fondly remembered his student pranks
harassing the philosopher in the Victor Cousin library at the Sor
bonne.6 Paul Nizan was a potential point of connection between
Sartre and Lefebvre. Nizan's relationship with Sartre is amply docu
mented,7 but his relationship with Lefebvre is less well known. Nizan
participated on the margins of the 'Philosophies' group of young
philosophers in which Lefebvre was active during the 1920s, together
with Georges Politzer, Norbert Guterman, Pierre Morhange,
Georges Friedmann and various others.8 The group evolved from a
spiritualist revolt to political commitment, expressed in a series of
small journals from 1924 to 1929, and involving a series of philo
sophical and political struggles with the surrealists and communists.
Some of its activities are fictionalised in Nizan's later novel La Con
spiration (1938), and Nizan was instrumental in inducing most of its
members to join the French Communist Party in 1927, on his return
from Aden. Lefebvre himself joined the party on completion of his
military service later in the same year.
Nizan and Lefebvre were together invited to contribute to the
influential 'Cahier de revendications', which was published as a spe
cial issue of the Nouvelle revue française in December 1932.9 Edited
by Denis de Rougemont, the 'Cahier' assembled young intellectuals
from across the political spectrum to articulate the new generation's
diagnosis of the crisis confronting France, and its rejection of the old
political and intellectual structures. Nizan and Lefebvre both
appeared as non-conformists among communists, though both were
quick to denounce any attempt to assimilate communists like them


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Towards a Heuristic Method

selves with their class enemies among the Jeune Droite, or even with
the wavering ranks of Catholic centrism. Nonetheless, Lefebvre con
tinued to enjoy a degree of acceptance and respect from the Left
leaning non-communist participants in the 'Cahier', especially the
Catholic personalists at Esprit, with whom Sartre later discovered
affinities. Subsequently, Nizan threw himself wholeheartedly into the
party apparatus, while Lefebvre continued to develop a more inde
pendent philosophical position within the Parti Communiste
Français (PCF). As a result, although Nizan served symbolically as
Sartre's political alter ego in the 1930s, it was Lefebvre who devel
oped the intellectual synthesis that provided a bridge between Marx
ism and Sartre's existentialism.
While Sartre was discovering Husserl and Heidegger, Lefebvre
was discovering Hegel and the Early Marx. Together with Norbert
Guterman, he translated and edited an anthology of Hegel's work,10
and translated parts of Marx's Paris Manuscripts of 1844.11 On the
basis of this work, he developed a critique of the mystified conscious
ness,12 and a philosophical account of Marxism grounded in a syn
thesis of the dialectical method with a general theory of alienation.13
Lefebvre became, in effect, the first French Marxist philosopher of
the inter-war period, though his work was substantially divergent
from the orthodox version ultimately summarised in Stalin's Short
course of 1938.14
Lefebvre's work Le Matérialisme dialectique (1939) became some
thing of a standard primer of Marxism. Along with his later populari
sations,15 it was a best-seller, and provided the principal introduction
to Marxist ideas for two or three generations of non-communist read
ers after the war. The impact of these writings was considerable, not
least since they and numerous other works by Lefebvre were pub
lished by 'bourgeois' publishers such as Presses universitaires de
France, Bordas, and Gallimard, rather than by the Éditions sociales,
and other imprints controlled by the PCF. In so far as Sartre gained
much of his general knowledge of Marx from popular presentations
rather than by reading Marx in the original, it is evident that Lefebvre
provided an important source and mediation, certainly during the
1940s.16 Not only were Lefebvre's accounts of Marxism readily avail
able in the post-Liberation period, but they were also less
bound to communist orthodoxy, and therefore more open to the
existentialist inflexion which Sartre began to seek.
Lefebvre's presentation of dialectical materialism began with a
reflection on the analysis of Being and Nothing in Hegel's Science of
Logic, developing the transcendence of these opposed terms in a


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Michael Kelly

third term of Becoming.17 He then examined the limitations of

Hegel's philosophical synthesis in its confrontation with Action or
Practice, which has its own internal logic, and which undermines the
ambition of Thought to be self-sufficient. The key to resolving the
confrontation is found in a theory of Alienation which suggests that
the alienation of human beings in either thought or in life can be
overcome (or transcended) in specific practical and historical circum
stances. The purely contemplative focus of Hegelian philosophy
must be replaced by a movement which combines rational and prac
tical ambitions. In Lefebvre's terms this is the role of Marxism,
which takes over the rational kernel of Hegel's dialectic and the prac
tical project of social transformation. It therefore sets itself the his
torical aim of overcoming human alienation, and producing the
Total Man, exemplified by free individuals in a free community, capa
ble of realising all the diverse potential inherent in human creativity.
Lefebvre's humanist Marxism is a Utopian vision of human self-fulfil
ment, which articulates the ideals of many intellectuals who embraced
Marxism in the 1940s.18 It is different from the communist humanists
lampooned in La Nausée for discovering humanity in the Second Five
Year Plan.19 In particular, it attempts to construct a dialectical relation
ship between consciousness and practice, which lays the groundwork
for a productive engagement between Marxism and existentialism.
When existentialism emerged as a major intellectual movement in
1945, it was perceived as a threat by other intellectual and political
forces. In particular, Catholics and communists saw Sartre as an
unwelcome competitor for the minds of the younger generation,
upon whom they placed their own hopes. The more extravagant
denunciations of Sartre, for example as a blasphemous satanist or as a
paid agent of U.S. imperialism, may be assigned to the exotica of the
period, but even intellectuals who were in many respects close to
Sartre were enrolled to play their part in stemming his influence. For
the most part, they approached the task with aim of producing what
Barthes later called a vaccine.20 Acknowledging the force of some at
least of Sartre's insights, they catalogued his errors and offered their
own synthesis as a better alternative to meet the needs of the time. In
this way they hoped to vaccinate any reader who might be tempted
by the attraction of existentialism. Hence, Emmanuel Mounier was
impelled to write his much-reprinted Introduction aux existentialismes
(1947),21 which presented non-atheistic forms of existentialism as
more complete and satisfying than Sartre's atheistic version.
Henri Lefebvre was called upon to perform a similar service on
behalf of Marxism. The contours of the Marxist anti-Sartre campaign


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Towards a Heuristic Method

are well known, and were well summarised by Mark Poster.22 Lefeb
vre's first contribution was an article in the PCF weekly magazine
Action,23 responding to Sartre's 'mise au point' on his relationship
with Marxism. His arguments were amplified in a book he published
the following year, under the title L'Existentialisme. The book began
by suggesting that the spiritualist revolt of the 'Philosophies' group
of the 1920s had already explored most of the issues now raised by
the existentialists. Moreover, this earlier group had exhausted the
possibilities inherent in their individualist philosophy of conscious
ness, and had turned to Marxism as a more effective response to the
problems of oppression and alienation, which had provoked their ini
tial revolt. In consequence, he argued, Sartre's movement was not
only unoriginal, but did not take account of the shortcomings iden
tified twenty years earlier. Lefebvre's book was sharply polemical,
and subsequent commentary has usually focused on the aspersions it
cast on the character of Paul Nizan.24 Lefebvre suggested that La
Conspiration was a betrayal of the spirit of the group that inspired it,
he pointed to the pervasive theme of betrayal in Nizan's novels, and
then intimated that Nizan himself had a guilty secret.25 In the con
text of 1946, this could only be an endorsement of the suggestion,
put about by the PCF leadership, that Nizan had been a police spy.
When challenged by Sartre, Etiemble and others, the PCF was
unable to substantiate its allegations.
Polemic was a genre in which Sartre himself was well skilled, and
also the genre in which much post-war intellectual debate was
couched, whatever its ideological tendency. But by focusing on loyal
ties and personalities, polemic exaggerates conflicts and conceals areas
of common ground. Looking behind the polemic, Lefebvre's argu
ment was by no means a categorical dismissal of Sartre. On the con
trary, he was at pains to point out how close Sartre came to
understanding the dialectical relationship between thought and action:

This objective dialectic which is sketched out and refined towards the end
of "Being and Nothingness" brings M. Sartre singularly close to Marxist
humanism and to dialectical materialism}6

In Lefebvre's view, Sartre was flirting with Marxist solutions, both in

theory and political practice, and he looked forward to the moment
when the latter-day existentialists would follow their precursors of
the 1920s in similarly transcending existentialism. For the remainder
of his study, Lefebvre examined the current crisis in philosophy in
France, and the possible solutions, which were being sought in the
work of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger, ending in a


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Michael Kelly

warning against the dangers of irrationalism. In each case, he

pointed out the important insights which were available from the
founding fathers of existentialism, but emphasised their failure to
move beyond a philosophy of consciousness, or to set it in a broader
humanist synthesis which incorporated action.
From a political viewpoint, the close affinities between existential
ism and Marxism were potentially very dangerous, since they affected
the ability of each side to influence opinions and events. Conse
quently, the polemical temperature remained high. But from a con
ceptual viewpoint, the affinities held out interesting prospects, which
did subsequently mature, though with a delay of some ten years. A
hint of the affinities is visible in Sartre's Matérialisme et révolution
(1946), where he mounts an attack on the simple-minded materialism
of Marxist writers such as Roger Garaudy and Pierre Naville. In the
process he takes care to cite Lefebvre as holding a subtler viewpoint.
He notes that in his book Matérialisme dialectique, Lefebvre explicitly
endorses the view that historical materialism offers a unity of idealism
and materialism.27 It was a point of some contention among Marxists,
and Lefebvre's political position was undoubtedly not helped by
Sartre's using him as a stick to beat Garaudy, who was the PCF's offi
cial philosophical spokesman.
Lefebvre was never a mere defender of the faith for the PCF. His
polemical approach in L'Existentialisme was combined with a dis
tinctly personal reflection on the experience of an intellectual genera
tion. At the same period he was also writing a Critique de la vie
quotidienne which with hindsight appears as one of the most original
works of this period.28 In it he adopted textual strategies which com
bined conceptual analysis with autobiography in ways which echoed
Sartre. One chapter, entitled 'Notes Written One Sunday in the
French Countryside', is in some respects a counterpoint to
Roquentin's notes written in Bouville.29 His reflections on the rela
tionship of the philosophical and the poetic are both an acknowl
edgement and a critique of Sartre. However, Lefebvre's humanistic
version of Marxism was coming under increasing attack from figures
such as Garaudy or Jean Kanapa. They proposed a simple credo
based on Stalin's Short course, and dominated the communist move
ment for almost two decades. Their approach stressed the objective
and scientific truth of Marxism, and offered a simplified version of
Engels's argument that dialectics can be found in nature. They com
bined this with the view that consciousness is merely a reflection of
the objective material world, and would have no truck with neo
Hegelian notions of a dialectic of being and consciousness, or of


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Towards a Heuristic Method

thought and action. As the Cold War set in, Lefebvre was forced to
make a painful self-criticism acknowledging his philosophical
'errors',30 and moved into an increasingly marginal position within
the PCF. During the mid-1950s, he began to develop a more overtly
critical analysis of the political and theoretical pronouncements
issued by French and Soviet communists in the name of Marxism.31
Lefebvre's withdrawal coincided with the period of Sartre's closest
rapprochement with the PCF. While Sartre was drawn into increasing
political commitment nationally, Lefebvre was taking refuge in the
ostensibly non-political task of constructing an academic career in the
burgeoning discipline of sociology. His first researches at the newly
founded Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) were
devoted to rural sociology, leading to the production of his doctorat
d'état thesis.32 He then turned to the study of urban issues for which
he is principally remembered as a sociologist.33 Lefebvre's work had
in fact a strong political dimension to it, made especially relevant by
the dramatic changes in French society of the 1950s, with rural
depopulation and rapid urbanisation giving rise to major social prob
lems, which still persist. It was in the course of his rural studies that
Lefebvre articulated the method, which Sartre found so attractive.
Analysing the life of the peasantry, Lefebvre notes that it shows
both 'horizontal' and 'vertical' dimensions of complexity.34 Viewed in
a horizontal dimension, it includes a wide diversity of property rela
tions, technical methods, and social structures. Viewed in a vertical
dimension, it includes a wide range of formations dating back to dif
ferent ages and dates. These two dimensions are closely interwoven,
but Lefebvre argues that they tend to be analysed independently of
each other. Hence, American studies almost entirely ignore the histori
cal dimension, while French studies have focused almost wholly on
historical origins. Recognising the somewhat delicate demarcations
between the academic disciplines of history and sociology, Lefebvre
proposes a three-step method. First, the descriptive moment, using
existing theories and techniques, seeks to produce a description of the
situation based on observation. Second, the analytico-regressive
moment, analysing the situation, attempts to assign precise dates to
the different aspects. And third, the historico-genetic moment, exam
ining how particular structures have been modified and have inter
acted with each other over time, seeks to show how the current state
of affairs was produced. Lefebvre applied his own method initially to
issues such as tenant farming, village communities and family relations.
The method therefore attempted to integrate two dimensions
which are frequently counterposed, and which might be summarised


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as the structural and the historical. Lefebvre was at pains to deny that
this was new or original and insisted that it was simply based on
Marx's analysis of capital in the mid-nineteenth century.35 No doubt
it was, and likewise Lefebvre's purpose in deploying it was to achieve
a critical analysis which would provide a basis for action. His percep
tion was that neither the diachronic (historical-vertical) nor the syn
chronic (structural-horizontal) approach could on its own take
sufficient account of the complexities. More important, neither
approach could support or direct effective practical intervention.
Lefebvre was keenly aware that traditional French historical
approaches, however perceptive in the hands of someone like Marc
Bloch, could not avoid a nostalgic, backward-looking temper. The
momentum of the historian was principally to delve ever more
deeply into the past, and rarely to look questioningly into the future.
Conversely, he considered that structural analyses, however compre
hensive, tended to construct an eternal present. This was a point
which frequently set Lefebvre at odds with the emerging structuralist
thinkers, whom he taxed with evacuating history and giving an
implicit blessing to the status quo.36
Between Lefebvre's article, published in 1953, and Sartre's enthu
siastic endorsement of it in his essay of 1957, the political itinerary of
the two thinkers began to converge, as both of them emerged from
the shadow of Stalinism to offer a non-communist form of Marxism.
A first point of alliance, somewhat unexpectedly, was the response to
Merleau-Ponty's book, Les Aventures de la dialectique (1955), which
contained a lengthy criticism of Sartre for his 'ultra-Bolshevism'. Sev
eral PCF intellectuals pitched in against Merleau-Ponty, and in
defence of Sartre. Among them, Lefebvre offered an extended cri
tique of Merleau-Ponty's Lukácsian concept of dialectics, which stood
out as one of the more thoughtful contributions in an otherwise stri
dent polemic.37 This was probably the last significant episode in
Sartre's period of fellow travelling, and shortly afterwards, he brought
it to an end in response to Khrushchev's revelations at the Twentieth

Party Conference, and the Soviet intervention in Hungary.

At the same time Lefebvre was encountering growing hostility
from within the PCF, and responded by beginning to campaign
actively with dissident groups for an alternative political direction. He
participated in several independent initiatives, of which the best
known and most influential were the situationist movement of Guy
Debord and Raoul Vaneigem,38 and the journal Arguments, where he
joined with colleagues like Roland Barthes, Edgar Morin and Pierre
Fougeyrollas in founding a forum for independent Marxist analysis.39

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Towards a Heuristic Method

This was the climate in which in late 1956 Lefebvre and Sartre
accepted an invitation by the Polish journal Tworczosc to contribute to
a special issue on French culture.40 Both contributions made an
impact in France where they were rapidly translated. Sartre's piece,
'Marxisme et existentialisme', became the first chapter of Questions de
méthode (1957), and of Critique de la raison dialectique (1960).
Lefebvre's article was reported extensively in Claude Bourdet's inde
41 and subse
pendent left-wing weekly magazine France-Observateur,
quendy published in full in Les Temps modernes42 It was the first time
Lefebvre had published in Sartre's journal, though he went on to
publish there on three other occasions over the next two years.43
Lefebvre's essay was both an acerbic criticism of dogmatic Marx
ism and an attempt to situate Marxist thought within the context of
French philosophy more broadly. In this context, he noted the vir
tual absence of conservative thought in France since the Liberation,
and the general openness to Marxist ideas in the other main intellec
tual movements (personalism, phenomenology, and existentialism).
This might well have led to dialogue, particularly in view of the
widespread adoption of dialectical thinking and theories of alien
ation, which offer common ground. He suggested that this had
begun to happen after the Liberation, but had been cut brutally
short from 1948 onwards by Zhdanovism and the theory of the 'two
camps'. In his view, the mistake had been to assume that the analysis
of political and economic polarisation could be translated into an
ideological or intellectual polarisation. The result had devastated
Marxist thought. He argued that several series of contradictions had
followed, and that a number of urgent issues were not being
addressed. He pointed out that the most substantial works on Marx
ism in France had been written by Jesuit priests, and endorsed the
view expressed by people like Sartre and Merleau-Ponty that Marx
ism, at least 'official' communist Marxism, was dying of boredom.
Extending the offer of dialogue to existentialism was not just a
recognition of philosophical affinities. It was also part of a political
project in which Lefebvre was engaged, to end the trench warfare on
the French Left and to construct alliances which would pave the way
to a credible socialist programme. This was still anathema to the
PCF, and would remain so for another decade. His Temps modernes
article was bitterly attacked by the party, with the main assault led by
Jean Kanapa, the hardest of intellectual hardliners.44 Lefebvre ampli
fied his article shortly afterwards in a book: Problèmes actuels du
marxisme (1958), and was expelled from the party in June 1958, on
the basis of his anti-party political activities. He had no doubt


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Michael Kelly

courted this outcome, and by the time it came he felt that his expul
sion was as much a liberation as a punishment.45
Sartre's article for Tworczosc had an enormous impact, in ways
which have often been discussed.46 It marks, by common consent,
the point at which Sartre began to develop a distinctive synthesis of
Marxism with his own philosophy. He accepted the general Marxist
proposition that Man makes history within the constraints of specific
social circumstances, but criticised the reductionism of 'official'
Marxists. They were concerned to demonstrate for example that Paul
Valéry was a petty-bourgeois intellectual or that Napoléon was
needed in order to terminate the Revolution, but did not address the
specificity of that particular individual. By ignoring particular pro
jects or events, and the ambiguities of choice or practice, he argued,
they treated history as an abstract universal and removed its life,
interest and meaning. It was the existentialist role to restore these
human and subjective dimensions, and set them as the foundation of
a totalising Knowledge.47
Sartre explicitly acknowledged Lefebvre's method in the generous
footnote, quoted earlier. In so doing he implicitly recognised that
this approach had the potential to provide the framework for a
reconstituted Marxism, or at least to provide a bridge between
Marxist and existentialist concerns. He summarised it under the
name 'progressive-regressive method', though this was not Lefeb
vre's title, and he devoted the bulk of his Questions de méthode to
elaborating it in detail. Lefebvre's biographer has suggested that
Sartre might therefore be seen as a disciple of Lefebvre.48 But since
Lefebvre did not regard this method as his own intellectual property,
it is not a view he espoused. Moreover, in adopting it, Sartre gave it
his own characteristic emphasis. The 'regressive' moment was inter
preted mainly as a movement from the collective event to retrace the
individual itineraries, which had contributed to it. And the 'progres
sive' moment was focused particularly on the process by which indi
vidual activities aggregated into collectivities. Nonetheless, the overt
borrowing from Lefebvre should not be ascribed to a whim or a
polemical gesture. It sprang from Sartre's long, though often dis
tant, acquaintance with the version of Marxism which Lefebvre had
done so much to propagate, and which for the best part of thirty
years was the only alternative to Soviet orthodoxy. In ostensibly
plucking an apparently simple but surprisingly useful method from a
journal of academic sociology, Sartre was also paying homage to the
principal architect of that independent Marxism which he now
wished to espouse.


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Towards a Heuristic Method

For his part, Lefebvre was content enough with the newly discov
ered affinity between himself and Sartre, and grateful for the existen
tialists' support when he was expelled from the PCF. Les Temps
modernes published his account of the events leading up to the expul
sion, and his rebuttal of the charges laid against him by the party
leadership, and in particular by its spokesman, Guy Besse.49 Shortly
afterwards, when he produced his sprawling autobiographical work,
La Somme et le reste (1959), he published an extract in Les Temps mod
ernes.50 It was a meditation on his youthful revolt against religion,
rather than a piece of Marxist theory, and carried resonances of his
Critique de la vie quotidienne, which was reprinted at the same
period, with a lengthy and explicitly anti-Stalinist introduction.51
Lefebvre pursued an active dialogue with Sartre's circle between
1957 and 1960, but his principal interests were not in the philo
sophical and psychological domains favoured by the existentialists.
Moreover, in the matter of Marxism, Lefebvre was a good deal less
amenable to what he saw as pre-Hegelian interpretations. When
Sartre's Critique de la raison dialectique appeared in 1960, Lefebvre
subjected it to a detailed critique, which was published in a small
left-wing review.52 He recognised the book as important, compact
and difficult, and he shared its opposition to dogmatism. He particu
larly applauded its attempt to incorporate an account of individuals
and of groups below the level of a class, which led at times to 'some
times dazzling insights' (des intuitions parfois fulgurantes).53 How
ever, he expressed his doubts about its claim to take Marxism
forward, and suggested that in many instances it was conceptually
In particular, he argued, Sartre did not take account of Marx's cri
tique of philosophy, and as a result adopted a Kantian emphasis on
the conditions of possibility of ideas, and sought to give them a
foundation in thought, rather than in practice, as Marx had pro
posed. For example, Sartre moved from discussing 'dialectical rea
son' to discussing simply 'the dialectic', which he treated as a noun,
rather than an adjective. This led to a reification of 'the dialectic',
which became a metaphysical subject, rather than the indication of
movements of struggle in thought and practice. Similarly, Sartre's
treatment of dogmatism seemed to Lefebvre to be largely confined
to a purely conceptual critique, which did not address the historical
and political circumstances that gave rise to it. As a result, he felt,
Sartre risked falling into the kind of speculative alienation which
Marx criticised in his early writings. This was not very different, in
Lefebvre's view, from the Stalinist attempt to 'found' Marxism on a


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Michael Kelly

'dialectic of Nature', and would simply replace one philosophical

foundation with another, both equally reified.
Lefebvre went on to criticise Sartre for misunderstanding some of
the subtle and complex concepts which Marxism had developed.
Sartre had confused the concept of totality with that of structure. He
had mistakenly taken scarcity to be an absolute rather than a relative
condition. He had excluded the natural world from the scope of
dialectical thought. And he had reduced the process of alienation to
an undialectical alterity. In sum, Lefebvre argued, Sartre had
repeated the errors of L'Etre et le néant, where he took Hegel's con
cepts of Being and Nothing, and hypostasised them into absolutes,
between which there could be no accommodation. In Critique de la
raison dialectique, he had taken key concepts in Marxism, such as
need, scarcity, praxis, and revolutionary action, and had reified them
as absolutes, leaving no room for any notion of transcendence or
transition. The consequence was a theory which could not easily be
mobilised politically, and Lefebvre suggested that Sartre's work bore
witness to the broader problem of the ideological failure of the
French Left, as well as the general crisis in philosophy. In some
respects, Lefebvre's critique may be seen as the response of a veteran
Marxist to a relative newcomer, suggesting that he needed to run
harder to catch up.54 But it was not dismissive of Sartre's enterprise
and held out the prospect of a continued dialogue.
For two or three years, Lefebvre and Sartre appeared broadly in
the same ideological family of non-communist Marxists in search of
a direction. This was, as Lefebvre suggested, a time of low ebb for
the post-war French Left. It was divided and disoriented by the crisis
of decolonisation, which almost became a civil war, and it was non
plussed by the economic miracle, which confronted it with the para
doxes of modernity. Though these two aspects of the period were
undoubtedly connected at a fundamental level,155they tended to pull
in opposite directions. While Sartre followed the post-colonial route,
Lefebvre pursued the critique of modernity.56 This had the effect of

limiting farther dialogue, as Sartre's and Lefebvre's preoccupations

subsequently diverged. Lefebvre's career developed as he took the
chair of sociology at Strasbourg, and later at Nanterre. But they both
found themselves on the same side in successive debates on the intel
lectual Left in the 1960s, and signing the same manifestos. Both
found themselves diversely adopted by fer Left groupings, from situ
ationists and anarchists to Trotskyists and Maoists. In the controver
sies with structuralism, they were frequently aligned together,
especially against the aggressive anti-humanism of Louis Althusser.57


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Towards a Heuristic Method

And when the events of May-June 1968 erupted, Lefebvre (at Nan
terre) and Sartre (in the Latin Quarter) were both at the forefront of
intellectual support for the student rebels.58
Despite their evident affinities,shared with many other Parisian left
wing intellectuals, there is no evidence that Lefebvre and Sartre had
any particular personal links in common. Certainly they did not culti
vate each other's acquaintance, but nor did they conspicuously avoid
each other. Each continued to deploy his own version of a dialectical
method, relying intuitively rather than systematically on its heuristic
power; but it was without much more than polite reference to each
other's work. Both of them were thinkers whose ideas were in the air
for a large part of the mid-century. But while the breadth and fertility
of Sartre's influence is well catalogued, it is useful to recall the extent
of cross-pollination he received from his contemporaries in France,
among whom Henri Lefebvre must figure as one of the most seminal.


1. J.-P. Sartre, Critique it la raison dialectique (Paris: Gallimard, 1960, p. 42),

author's translation.
2. M. Poster, Existential Marxism in Postwar France. From Sartre to Althusser

(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975).

3. Lefebvre was born 16 June 1901, Sartre on 21 June 1905.
4. M. Winock, "Esprit". Des intellectuels dans la cité 1930-1950', Revue et augmentée
ed (Paris: Seuil, 1996, p. 15).
5. Lefebvre's posts were in Privas, Montargis and Saint-Etienne; Sartre's in Le
Havre, Laon and Neuilly.
6. H. Lefebvre, L'existentialisme (Puis: Editions du Sagittaire, 1946, pp. 22-3).
7. M. Scriven, Paul Nizan, communist novelist (London: Macmillan, 1988).
8. M. Trebitsch, 'Le groupe "Philosophies" et les surréalistes (1924-1925),' Mélu
sine XI (1990): 63-96; M. Trebitsch, 'Philosophy and Marxism in the 1930s:
Henri Lefebvre's Marxist Critique,' Annals of Scholarship 8, 1(1991): 9-32; B.
Burkhart, 'Priests and Jesters: The "Philosophies" Circle and French Marxism
between the Wars' (unpublished thesis, Georgetown University, 1986).
9. J. Forbes and M. Kelly, eds, French Cultural Studies: an Introduction (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1995); M. Trebitsch, 'Le Front commun de la jeunesse
intellectuelle: Le "Cahier de revendications" de décembre 1932,' in Ni Gauche ni
Droite: les chasses-croisés idéologiques des intellectuels français et allemands dans
l'entre-deux-guerres, ed. by Gilbert Merlio (Paris: Maison des sciences de
l'homme d'Aquitaine, 1995, pp. 209-227).
10. H. Lefebvre and N. Guterman, eds, Morceaux choisis de Hegel (Paris: Gallimard,
11. K. Marx, 'Critique de la dialectique hégélienne,' Avant-poste août (1933): 110
116, and juin (1933): 32-39.
12. N. Guterman and H. Lefebvre, La Conscience mystifiée (Paris: Gallimard, 1936).

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Michael Kelly

H. Lefebvre, Matérialisme dialectique (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France,

1939); M. Kelly, Modern French Marxism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982).

The Short History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, widely know as the
Short Course, was edited by Stalin and issued as a definitive statement of the his

tory, theory and practice of communism. The chapter on philosophy, written by

Stalin himself, was given a wide separate circulation, published in English as
Dialectical and Historical Materialism ( 1940).
H. Lefebvre, Le marxisme (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1948); H.
Lefebvre, Pour connaître la Pensée de Karl Marx ( 1st edn, Paris: Bordas, 1947).
For example, Lefebvre's Matérialisme dialectique is quoted in Sartre's Matérial
isme et révolution (1946), see below.
This account draws on Lefebvre's Matérialisme dialectique.
E. Morin, Autocritique(3rd edn, Paris: Seuil, 1975, pp. 113-4).
Roquentin's catalogue of pathetic humanists mentions that 'the communist
writer has loved men since the Second Five Year Plan'. J.-P. Sartre, La nausée
(Paris: Gallimard, 1973, p. 165), author's translation.
R. Barthes, Mythologies (Paris: Seuil, 1957, pp. 259-60).
Reprinted by Gallimard in 1962 in the collection 'Idées', and in Mounier's col
lected works: E. Mounier, Oeuvres, t.31944-1950 (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1962).
M. Poster, Existential Marxism in Postwar France, pp. 109-60.
H. Lefebvre, 'Existentialisme et marxisme: réponse à une mise au point,' Action
40, 8 June (1945): 8.
See M. Scriven, Paul Nizan, pp. 62-3; W.D. Redfern, Paul Nizan: Committed
Literature in a Conspiratorial World (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1972, pp.199-200).
H. Lefebvre, L'Existentialisme, pp.17-18.
H. Lefebvre, Henri, L'Existentialisme, p. 65, Lefebvre's italics.
J.-P. Sartre, Situations III(Paris: Gallimard, 1949, p.165).
See M. Kelly, 'The historical emergence of everyday life,' Sites 1,1 (1997): 77-92.
H. Lefebvre, Critique de la vie quotidienne, 1, Introduction (Paris: Grasset,
1947),available in English as Critique of Everyday Life, 1. Introduction, translated
by John Moore (London: Verso, 1991).
See H. Lefebvre, 'Autocritique,' La Nouvelle critique (March 1949):41-57, and
his later comments on the episode in H. Lefebvre, La Somme et le reste (2nd edn,
Paris: Bélibaste, 1973, pp.241-2).
See M. Kelly, Modem French Marxism, pp.100-106.
H. Lefebvre, La Vallée de Campan: études de sociologie rurale (Paris: Presses Uni
versitaires de France, 1963).
See particularly his books Le Droit à la ville (Paris: Anthropos, 1968), and La
Production de l'espace (Paris: Anthropos, 1974). A useful anthology has been
published in English: H. Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, ed and trans Eleonore Kof
man and Elizabeth Kebas (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).
H. Lefebvre, 'Perspectives de la sociologie rurale,' Cahiers internationaux de soci
ologie xiv (1953): 122-140.
H. Lefebvre, La Production de l'espace, pp.79-82.
Sec H. Lefebvre, Au-delà du structuralisme (Paris: Anthropos, 1971).
H. Lefebvre, 'M. Merleau-Ponty et la philosophie de l'ambiguïté,' La Pensée 68,
juillet-août (1956): 44-58; and La Pensée 73, mai-juin (1957): 37-52.
See K. Ross, 'Lefebvre on the Situationists: An Interview October 79, Winter
(1997): 69-83.

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Towards a Heuristic Method

This is extensively discussed in M. Poster, Existential Marxism.

Other contributors included Edgar Morin, Maurice Nadeau, and Jean Duvignaud.
H. Lefebvre, 'Le marxisme va mal en France,' France-Observateur, janvier (1957).
H. Lefebvre, 'Le Marxisme et la pensée française,' Les Temps modernes, 137-138,

juillet-août (1957): 104-137.

43. H. Lefebvre, Henri, 'L'exclu s'inclut,' Les Temps modernes, 149, juillet (1958):
226-37; 'Réponse au camarade Besse,' Les Temps modernes, 149, juillet (1958):
238-49; 'Le soleil crucifié,' Les Temps modernes, 155 (1959): 1016-29; 'Qu'est-ce
que le passé historique?,' Les Temps modernes, 161, juillet ( 1959): 159-69.
44. J. Kanapa, 'Sur un bulletin de santé du marxisme en France: réponse à Henri

Lefebvre,' La Nouvelle critique, 87-88, juillet-août (1957):228-245.

45. Sec H. Lefebvre, 'L'exclu s'inclut,' Les Temps modernes, 149, juillet (1958):226-37.
46. See for example M. Poster, Sartre's Marxism (London: Pluto, 1979); R_Aronson,
Jean-Paul Sartre, Philosophy in the World (London: Verso, 1980).
47. J.-P. Sartre, Critique de la raison dialectique (Paris: Gallimard, 1960, pp.110-111).
48. R Hess, Henri Lefebvre et l'aventure du siècle (Paris: Métailié, 1988, p.182).
49. H. Lefebvre, 'L'exclu s'inclut,' Les Temps modernes, 149, juillet (1958): 226-37;
followed by 'Réponse au camarade Besse,' Les Temps modernes, 149, juillet
50. H. Lefebvre, 'Le soleil crucifié,' Les Temps modernes, 155 (1959): 1016-29.
51. H. Lefebvre, Critique de la vie quotidienne. I Introduction 2nd edn (Paris:
L'Arche, 1958).
52. H. Lefebvre, 'Critique de la critique non-critique,' Nouvelle revue marxiste, juillet

53. H.Lefebvre, 'Critique de la critique non-critique,' 63.
54. Taking up a point made by Howard Davies, in his Sartre and 'Les Temps mod
ernes' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, p.100).
55. This point is argued forcefully in K. Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonisation
and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995).
56. See, for example, H. Lefebvre, Introduction à la modernité, preludes (Paris: Minuit,
1962); La Vie quotidienne dans le monde moderne (Paris: Gallimard, 1968).
57. This is discussedin some detail in Mark Poster, Existential Marxism, and in Tony
Judt, Marxism and the French Left (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).
58. See K. Reader, Intellectuals and lise Left in France since 1968 (London: Macmil
lan, 1987).


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