Why read a long dead French Marxist to think about land struggles today?

paul klee

By Stuart Elden and Adam David Morton

Henri Lefebvre was a French Marxist sociologist and philosopher, whose date of birth is disputed, but was probably 1901, and whose long life came to an end in 1991. He is principally known in English language discussions for his work on three related topics – everyday life, urban politics and the production of space. Lefebvre wrote widely, with several works of philosophy, including stinging critiques of existentialism and structuralism; a number of studies of Marx, Hegel and Nietzsche; books on French literary and philosophical figures such as Rabelais, Descartes, Musset and Pascal; alongside his major work De l’État, whose four volumes are partly summarised in the English collection State, Space, World and his wide ranging The Production of Space that has proved important in and beyond the discipline of geography. But Lefebvre also wrote extensively on rural politics and land questions. It is this last topic that our new collaborative research project seeks to address.

Lefebvre wrote his doctoral dissertation on peasant communities in the Pyrenees. This was based on research he had conducted during the Second World War and was awarded in 1954. His secondary thesis, a study of the Campan valley, was published as a book in 1963, and a book on the region as a whole in 1965. He served as a rural researcher at the prestigious Centre national de la recherche scientifique for several years, writing and contributing to various studies. Lefebvre had ambitious plans for this work, intending to write a ‘Manuel of Rural Sociology’ covering rent, land and markets; the question of terrain; and agrarian reform, with a special focus on Italy, Spain, Mexico and Iran. Yet this comprehensive study was never published. His biographer Rémi Hess tells the story of how the manuscript, in a late and almost complete version, was stolen from a car near the Panthéon in Paris while Lefebvre was out with friends. A reward was offered in an advertisement in France Soir, but this did not succeed in enabling its return, and the project was abandoned.

However, there are a number of shorter texts on these questions in his books, especially in the collection Du rural à l’urbain, which both tracks Lefebvre’s own shifting interests from rural to urban questions, but also traces the developments he saw happening in his home region, France, and globally. As Lefebvre states in his essay ‘Perspectives on Rural Sociology’:

In a hundred ways, the capitalist form of private property subordinated to itself previous forms: those of the clan or tribe, communal or feudal. The fact emerges clearly from the study of the agrarian structure of “underdeveloped” countries: colonial or semi-colonial countries, backward sectors in capitalist countries.

The first stage of our project will be to translate and introduce one essay, previously unavailable in English, from this collection which will be published in Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography. We hope to develop this work beyond the single article with more translations and interpretative work.

We believe that Lefebvre’s engagement with issues of landed property and rent from a Marxist perspective, including the distinction between differential rent and absolute rent and then ground rent as an expression of capitalism continues to have important insights today. He interrogates the notion of ground rent as a socially determined categorya social relation of productionarising from a historically conditioned process, via primitive accumulation. This confers, in the form of landownership, the ability to appropriate from objects of nature (land, water, and minerals) the demand of a payment for their use, even in the form of the least fertile land (through absolute ground rent). He analyses these issues through a theory of uneven development, which remains especially important in Latin America today. This was a region that Lefebvre visited and presented his work in, especially at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico and at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Venezuela. It is our aim to produce a key text that will provide insights on wider debates about issues of rural and land questions in Henri Lefebvre’s work relevant to contemporary historical sociology, political economy, geographical, and Marxist approaches to ground rent, uneven development, land reform and agrarian reform.

The project is collaborative because each researcher brings complementary expertise. Stuart Elden is co-editor and/or co-translator of three books of Lefebvre’s writings, and author of a widely referenced book on his work in Understanding Henri Lefebvre. He writes on questions of territory and political space, with an emerging interest in the question of terrain. Adam David Morton has worked extensively on themes of political economy, state theory, historical sociology, and uneven development in their relevance to Latin America in his Revolution and State in Modern Mexico. He has worked in detail on Antonio Gramsci and other Marxist thinkers, which will enable a contextualisation of Lefebvre’s work within a wider tradition of thinking on land and ground rent.

We hope that together we can relate Lefebvre’s work to contemporary Latin America, wider Marxist political economy, and disputes over political space across a range of scales.

11 thoughts on “Why read a long dead French Marxist to think about land struggles today?”

  1. Stuart and Adam,
    This idea is of great interest to me and I would appreciate any opportunity to contribute to this or the larger forthcoming project. My doctoral thesis and current research pertain to the analysis of uneven development in the context of Lefebvre’s discourse. Specifically this focuses on the work of development practitioners in Latin America and the Wider Global South, for example John Turner’s work in 1960s Peru. I believe this research agenda may be able to contribute a valuable perspective on this issue. I would love to discuss this further if you feel this may be of interest.
    Richard Bower

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