Marxist Thought & the [Ancient] City

This is the first post in a series discussing Lefebvre’s use of ancient Rome in his writings. You can find a brief description of the project here. Page numbers refer to the new English translation by Robert Bononno with forward by Stuart Elden, available here.

Originally published in 1972, Marxist Thought and the City came out in the period when Lefebvre was most occupied with the city and urban questions. As we will see, the majority of writings, which make reference to the ancient city, are from the mid-1960s to mid-70s. It is interesting to trace the strands of thought in Lefebvre that draw on the ancient city, as they weave multiple threads, rather than a single line. My own interests in urban history, Roman urbanism and theoretical approaches to the city made Lefebvre a natural source for critically questioning ideas and concepts of space. It has become common to cite The Production of Space in studies of Roman urbanism, although these citations are never to Lefebvre’s use of ancient materials and rather references to either the challenge in defining space or his tripartite division of space in the first chapter. Therefore, this series of posts hopes to draw attention to the way the ancient city and space are part of Lefebvre’s historical work and, which has more to say about ancient urbanism than is usually given credit.

In Marxist Thought and the City, Lefebvre traces the fragmentary references to the city and urban problems in the works of Marx and Engels. While described as Lefebvre’s most theoretical work on the city, it is heavily indebted to Marxist thought in general, and Marx’s own writing in particular. Lefebvre notes the limited and fragmentary nature of references at the outset (xv). Thus, Marxist Thought and the City forms a ‘thematic rereading’ of Marx and Engels on the city and the urban problematic within the context of historical materialism (xv). Within this thematic rereading, reference is made to the ancient city within the conceptualisation of history and praxis (26-31). In general, discussion focuses on the ‘ancient city’ as a phase in the history of capitalism, rather than the particulars of Greek or Roman cities, as seen in Lefebvre’s other writings (like The Production of Space or Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment). For these reasons, Marxist Thought and the City provides an introduction to one strand of Lefebvre’s engagement with the ancient world, namely the city within the history of capitalism. In some of his other writings, Roman space and cities are discussed as comparative examples in the production of space and as part of the history of the city.

The first chapter, ‘The Situation of the Working Class in England’, looks at the early work of Engels and Lefebvre notes the twofold centralisation within the city that Engels analyses within capitalism: the concentration of population accompanies a concentration of capital (3). All the elements of industry are gathered in the city and, in England, every industrial region is a single city (3). Lefebvre draws out the important differences in Marx and Engels approaches. For Marx, current events clarify the past. The relationship between city and country in the ancient and Medieval periods follows from the differentiation of people from animals through labour in the opening of The German Ideology (6). Engels has a less retrospective view, focusing on modern cities to a level Marx never does (6). Throughout the book, the city of antiquity is seen in contrast to the city of the Middle Ages: ‘Antiquity began with the city while the Middle Ages (Western, European) began with the countryside’ (29). This overarching theme, of antiquity and the Middle Ages, is part of the Marxist tradition inherited by Lefebvre (see his other formulations of the history of the city, Metaphilosophy 2016: 143-4) and the city/countryside conflict is part of Marx’s emphasis in historical materialism (6). Particularities in the Roman or Greek city are not discussed in the book and references remain at the level of ‘ancient city’.

In the second chapter, the division of labour is discussed in terms of its urban aspects. Again, starting from the opening of The German Ideology, production includes reproduction of a way of life (27). The conflict between city and countryside resurfaces, as their separation is the division of labour (28). The quote above on antiquity beginning with the city follows this idea. In antiquity, political cities organised, dominated, protected, administered and exploited their surrounding territories (29). In the case of Greece and Rome, warfare and exchange were exercised to dominate a territory much larger than the cities immediate environment. For Lefebvre, the only major conflict was slaves and citizens in the urban growth of the ancient city (29). In the Middle Ages, these relationships are inverted.

The city serves as the subject of history in Marx and Engels (36-7). The city is introduced by a series of characteristics: a) the city concentrates not only the population, but also that which creates a society (institutions, organisations, instruments of production, capital, needs and pleasures); b) the separation of city and countryside reflects the separation of material and intellectual division of labour. The countryside provides material labour devoid of intellect, while the city provides labour enriched through intellect (37); c) the separation of city and countryside can and must be overcome, same as the division of labour (38). The city-country relationship is a returning theme within throughout the text. Much of the chapter is taken up discussing the city and country division and its relation to the division of labour. There are a number of points worth detailing, but much of it moves way from the ancient city.

Chapter three, ‘Critique of Political Economy’, has the most extensive discussion of the ancient city. Lefebvre begins summarising his argument so far. The transition from the dissolution of the feudal mode of production to capitalism was associated with a subject: the city (60). In comparison with the ‘Asiatic mode of production’, the European West reveals a form of transition from agricultural communities (71-4). The particularities of the Western city’s lineage are tied to the city as a laboratory where nature is an active agent in the development of the city (72-3) and community being detached from nature by nomadism, migration and instability (73-4). The detachment of the social being from nature (nomadism), which leads to warfare as the communal task of such societies (74). In this case, the city is the base of military organisation, while the severing of the immediate connection to nature means the city takes on a characteristic of mediation (75). The ancient urban republics prospered as the individual was placed in a condition were self-substance, the individuals own reproduction as a member of the community, was necessary, not the accumulation of wealth (75).

Drawing on the Grundrisse, the ancient city appears as the second line of development and decline (the first being the oriental city and the third that of the ‘barbarian German’, 77). What separates these lines of development and decline are the forms of ownership (77). The ancient city has two distinct forms of ownership united in the city: private property of the individual and public property, the ager publicus (77). A bipartite relationship is created where an individual is both an equal member of the community (citizen) and an owner. The social unit assumes a communal form, as well as ownership assumes a particular mode of production and relationships among individuals and between their totality and nature (80). What follows is the community as the ‘first great productive force’ (80). The loss of this bipartite relationship is inevitable and in the ancient city it dissolved the mode of production on which the community was based, and with it what made the individual Roman (80).

That is the ancient city politically dominated the countryside, but the countryside economically dominated the city (78). This tension lead to the breakdown of the city (78). Here in using different examples, the dissolution of the relationships between different elements of production gives way to relations of domination (82). In the ancient city, this produced plebeians, ‘demanding bread and circuses’ (82). Relations of domination and servitude are, thus, part of the decay of relations of ownership and production and were, according to Lefebvre, prevalent in Imperial Rome (82).

In the final chapters, Lefebvre turns to ‘Engels and Utopia’ and ‘Capital and Land Ownership’. These studies are full of interesting points, but do not engage with the ‘ancient city’ to the extent of chapter three. In particular, at the end of chapter five (‘Capital and Land Ownership’), Lefebvre lays out how the city is the site, or sites, par excellence of reproduction, which is larger and more complex than production (143). It is apparent in this closing remark that the Lefebvre is thinking in terms of a broader definition of production, one that he sets out in various places. Parallel broad definitions are found in Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment and The Production of Space. For Lefebvre, the city is the site of the reproduction of social relations, as well as the link between the terms of production and labour. In terms of the Roman city, Lefebvre will continue to draw relate the physical city to the social relations, even if at times in a dated scholarly fashion. Marxist Thought and the City offers a good introduction to many of the themes and concepts Lefebvre expands in other writings, as well as placing the ancient city within his own theoretical approach.

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